Mired in three-game skid, Washington Capitals insist they remain motivated as playoffs approach

The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir talks about the remaining six games in the Caps' season and the possible goaltending controversy facing the club.
By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

While the Washington Capitals have been the NHL's preeminent team this season, their recent downturn has invited questions about whether systemic breakdowns could undermine a run to the Stanley Cup.

Most conspicuous in the Capitals' three-game losing streak has been a shortage of energy to start games. Washington has yielded the first goal in each of those losses, and such early deficits have become an irritant with six games left in the regular season.

At the heart of the issue is motivation, or lack thereof, considering the Capitals have secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are the prohibitive front-runner for the Presidents' Trophy awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season.

"People have been talking about that, and actually, quite frankly, it [angers me] when they say we're sailing through to the postseason," forward Brooks Laich said. "We want to win hockey games, and when we don't win hockey games, we go home frustrated and upset, and nobody wants that feeling ever.

"We're not throwing hockey games. We're not coasting. We're not taking it easy on teams. That's nothing we ever do. We practice hard to be in a habit to play hard every single day, and we're never going to give a team an inch, although maybe sometimes you guys may think we do. That doesn't happen in this locker room."

Reminders about the mistimed slide are virtually inescapable, from Internet message boards to lively discussion on sports talk radio to recent booing at Verizon Center for a team that has become the District's best hope for a professional championship in the immediate future.

Fans voiced that displeasure on Sunday after Washington surrendered three goals on 10 shots to Calgary and trailed 4-0 after the first period. The Flames entered the game with 26 fewer points than the Capitals and had lost, 5-0, to Boston the previous night.

Circumstances didn't get much better for Washington in its next game against Ottawa. After scoring 1 minute 24 seconds into the game, the Senators dictated the agenda throughout the rest of the period in forging a 3-1 advantage.

Over the past three games, the Capitals have allowed nine goals in the first period and scored one. That bothersome trend has become an engaging topic in the locker room as players attempt to extricate themselves from a rut.

"It certainly got our attention," right wing Mike Knuble said. "Certainly something that you have to consciously think about during the game, but at the same time you don't want to be paralyzed by it, sitting there hoping, waiting, 'Is something going to happen?' For us, for most of the season, it's been us jumping down teams' throats at the beginning of the game. Of late it's been the opposite."

Special teams have been among the worst offenders in the Capitals' latest undoing. Against Ottawa, Washington's penalty kill went 1 for 4, including giving up the final two goals in man-down situations. The Capitals' power-play unit, meantime, went 1 for 5 in that game following a 2-for-6 showing against Calgary.

The Capitals' goal differential is plus 77, 28 more than the next closest team, and they have a league-high seven players with at least 20 goals. Mike Green, the NHL leader in points among defensemen, needs two goals to become the eighth.

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