Rocking the Dread Instead of the Red

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 7, 2009

For a year, the Washington Capitals and their fans have relished their booming, blossoming franchise. But in any sport, the evolution of a rising contender is tumultuous. With praise comes complacency. Individual glory can erode team play. Above all, with excellence comes expectation. And with those new expectations come tension and nerves.

That's where the Capitals are now after a stunning third straight loss -- all at home, all to weaker teams.

All season, the Caps have relished their growing pleasures. Now they're facing their growing pains.

The Caps and their fans are not just shocked by the losses, but by the combined 13-5 score, too. In one loss, they gave up six straight goals; in the next game, five in a row and, on Thursday, they trailed 2-0 entering the final minute. The last time the Caps lost three straight in regulation time at home, they fired the coach -- last season.

"You can be told a little too often how good you are. I don't know if 'cavalier' is the word, but you can be too cocky at times, not play as hard as you should, be more pretty than gritty," General Manager George McPhee told me yesterday. Thursday night, he was so frustrated he went into his suite muttering, "I'm going back into my cave."

Far better to experience such issues now than in April, when you can be dumped out of the playoffs before you have figured out your problems, much less fixed them.

But that doesn't mean folks aren't getting hot. Sunday, the crowd at Verizon Center booed. On Tuesday, Coach Bruce Boudreau joined the chorus, lambasting his team for celebrating a meaningless goal.

"If I was on the Carolina bench, I would have been going, 'Look at these idiots,' " Boudreau said.

Losing to the Maple Leafs, albeit without Alex Ovechkin, might have been the most perplexing defeat, but also the most revealing. The Caps played with more intensity and fewer mistakes. But the accumulated frustration of a 3-5 skid -- during what could have been the fattest part of the schedule, with nine of 10 games at home -- showed itself in a new form: a bit of choking.

For good teams such as the Caps, gagging isn't the same as quitting or being selfish. Often, it's the opposite. Boudreau described it well after losing to a Toronto goalie who had just been picked up on waivers after a stint in the minors.

"It's not panic. They want to do so well they are afraid of making a mistake," the coach said. "We had enough chances to win two or three games. Guys are pressing pretty hard at this stage. We're holding our sticks really tight."

Then Boudreau added the most telling point. During the slump, the Caps have told him that "they were just so nervous. If they feel nervous now, how are they going to feel if we get to the third or fourth round of the playoffs? You can't get inside their heads."

But, of course, that is exactly where every fan will want to go. That's where the fun is.

Few teams have gone through a more rapid and total transformation in identity in such a short a time. It's disorienting. If anything, it's surprising how well the Caps have coped. Last season was easy, at least psychologically. The Caps' desperate situation in the standings kept them focused. Win, win, win or be eliminated. This season, with a commanding but not insurmountable 11-point Southeast Division lead, the Caps have finally had time to survey the league, imagine their playoff seeding and, oh, dream.

"Don't think, kid. You can only hurt the ballclub," is a catchphrase from baseball, a sport similar to hockey when the subject is slumps, their causes and cures.

"The tone around the team has changed," McPhee said. "Last year, Bruce gave them a lot of encouragement: 'You can do this.' This year, it's more of a demand: 'Let's play even better.' "

That approach worked for half a season. But flaws began to creep into the Caps' play in unexpected home losses to weaker teams on the heels of prestigious wins on the road. A month ago, after a loss to the Kings, Ovechkin (who expects to play tomorrow) fretted that the team was being too fancy, too individualistic, not keeping it simple and violent.

"Sometimes, you can see your team's play start to slip even while you are still winning," McPhee said. "When that happens, it can be good to get blown out 5-2 and 6-2, not 2-1 and 3-2, because the coach has their attention."

Every day, the Caps are tempted to look at the standings as they fight with the New Jersey Devils, two points and two games in hand ahead of them, for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. To be distracted by images of big-picture success, rather than the tight-focus process of playing excellently, is always poison.

Questions about their future even distract the Caps. When will they be great? Fifteen times in the last 16 seasons, they made trades before the NHL deadline that passed Wednesday. This year, when many expected they would shore up their defense or backup goaltending, McPhee said no deal was better than the offers he had received. Their pipeline is so full, they don't want to squander the future.

So in the first real slump in their era of rebirth, what should the Caps do now?

They should stop thinking, pressing, squeezing the sawdust out of the handles of their sticks and muttering the phrase "Stanley Cup." Instead, play hockey. That's hard.

Pro sports are tedious, grueling, bruising exercises in self-discipline and constantly renewed self-motivation. The glamour is in the final result. But each day is a bear. To be consistent -- like beating lesser teams at home -- requires maturity. But maturity only comes with time -- and slumps.

"We need to learn to play 'little ball' again," McPhee said, pointing at fundamentals and intensity. "Rather than a lot of dipsy-doodle stickhandling moves in the middle of the ice, get it in, go after it, get to the net.

"It's fun to have the puck, but when you don't, you have to work to get it back, not hope to get it back. Forwards need to come back [to center ice] to put pressure on the other team from the back side. Then, when the defense stands up at the blueline, they can't go forward or back. Get your nose dirty, then come back" on offense.

For months, Caps crowds have roared as Ovechkin passed the puck off the boards to himself, did a spin and then scored while flat on his back on the ice. Mike Green set a record for defensemen with goals in eight straight games. Alexander Semin is a highlight reel, too. And so on.

That's talent. That's the glitz. And it's essential. The Caps have it. But it's just a precursor to a title run.

The unglamorous daily routine of getting one another up for weaker opponents, of using proper fundamentals to set up moments of flash and flair -- that's what separates the emerging team from the true powerhouse.

"Can we learn anything for this? Maybe," Boudreau said. "But there is no good time to have it. Maybe if we were 15 points ahead of everybody, the way Detroit was last season. We're not as safe."

Before they reach the prize they seek, the Caps will have many a growing pain. So they and their fans better get used to it. They've arrived. Now the hard part starts.

"This," McPhee said, "is reality therapy."

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