By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; D08
No more than two words had left the reporter's mouth Monday night, but Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich knew exactly what he was about to be asked.
He squirmed from side to side, puffed his cheeks out, and let go of a deep breath, preparing to give an appropriate response to the question of whether the trade that sent his former captain and next-door neighbor in the Verizon Center locker room, Chris Clark, and defenseman Milan Jurcina to Columbus for winger Jason Chimera just hours earlier had any effect on his team's performance in a 6-3 loss to Carolina.
"We're professionals; we understand it's a business," Laich said. "I don't think the trade had anything to do with the hockey game. Obviously they're very good friends and a huge part of our locker room . . . but as far as taking away or distracting us during the game, that's not an excuse at all."
But the disappointing loss to the NHL's worst team had all the telltale signs of a team preoccupied with something other than the game at hand. Washington came out flat, allowing three goals and mustering just four shots on net -- all the more surprising because the Capitals were coming off resounding home victories over Eastern Conference elites New Jersey and Buffalo in which they scored goals in the games' first five minutes.
While players such as Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Laich have grown together through Game 7 losses in the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons, never before have they seen one of their own -- certainly not their captain -- leave so unexpectedly midseason. The team did acquire goaltender Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and wing Matt Cooke at the 2008 trade deadline, but the only NHL player lost in those deals was struggling wing Matt Pettinger, who at the time had seven points and a plus-minus rating of minus 11.
Following Monday's morning skate, it was clear Clark had no idea of any trade possibilities as he discussed that night's game and Wednesday's tilt in San Jose, where he said the team wanted to "definitely make a statement," against the Western Conference's best.
If there's one team that can empathize with the Capitals now, it is the Sharks. San Jose had a leadership issue of its own this offseason when Patrick Marleau was stripped of the 'C' on his sweater over the summer. Veteran defenseman Rob Blake has since taken over the role.
Instead of allowing the slight to affect his game, the 30-year-old Marleau has responded with the best statistical season of his career thus far (25 goals, 16 assists) and is one of three Sharks who rank amongst the NHL's top 15 point-scorers (Joe Thornton leads the league with 54 points and Dany Heatley isn't far behind in seventh with 44).
Before the trade announcement, Coach Bruce Boudreau said his team would have to be "in survival mode" when it visits HP Pavilion -- affectionately known as the Shark Tank -- after getting blown out there, 7-2, last year. The Capitals haven't won in San Jose since 1993, a skid that spans 11 games. Now, though, with one leader and two friends gone, the question is, how will the Capitals survive some newfound emotional adversity?
"It's gonna be a challenge, the travel, everything else, it's gonna be a challenge for this hockey team," said Laich. "Something we don't want to do around here is lose two games in a row."