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For the Washington Capitals, what's past is prologue

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 11:59 PM

It's a tough time to be a fan in this town. The Nats seem to have signed a long-term lease on the NL East cellar. The Wizards are young and rebuilding, to put it kindly. The Redskins - must we speak of the Redskins? Even D.C. United, the only professional team to hold a victory parade in my 17 years in D.C., has gone off the rails.

And then there are the Caps, who are the worst offenders of all. The worst, because they are the best. They sell out Verizon Center and set records for regular-season wins and make the playoffs. In other words, they've given their fans the unthinkable: a reason to hope. Damn 'em.

So when the Caps lose six straight - that's the rocket they're riding into Wednesday night's game against Anaheim - the wailing and the gnashing of teeth drown out even the cacophony of moans and despair emanating from FedEx Field. And that's saying something.

A six-game losing skid in an 82-game season hardly seems reason to panic. The Lakers, the defending NBA champions, recently lost four straight, and Los Angeles didn't grind to a halt (although perhaps it did and no one could tell). But of course the key is "defending NBA champions." Much is forgiven in sports if you occasionally win a title of some sort. Little is forgiven if you continually fall short in the postseason, as the Caps are learning.

Until they win a Stanley Cup, the Capitals will be viewed through the prism of three straight playoff failures.

Not so long ago - April, in fact - the supposed best team in hockey lost in the first round of the playoffs to Montreal in seven games. Because of that, and the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round two seasons ago, and the Game 7 loss to Philadelphia in the first round three seasons ago - well, you get the point. This is why Rockin' the Red may soon involve actual rocks.

And it's why fans are desperately looking for a scapegoat (and why it's hard to blame them). Coach Bruce Boudreau comes in for his share of heat, and it's been suggested that the team needs a new goaltender, another center, better defensemen and a Zamboni with On-Star. (And it doesn't help that while the Caps are struggling, the Penguins have won 14 of their past 16 games.)

The goaltending suggestion is too ridiculous to merit discussion. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are young, and they are going to have bad games. They are also going to be top-flight goalies in this league for years to come. They are getting beat up a bit in December, yes, but that should pay dividends in April.

"We've got two great young goaltenders," Boudreau said Tuesday. "Not good - great young goaltenders. We're not going to go after anyone else."

And speaking of Boudreau, I don't think the clock's run out on him, not yet. I wrote after last year's Game 7 loss that this season would be a referendum on his future in Washington, but it's not time for the balloting, not quite yet. No coaching job in hockey is a lifetime appointment, including Boudreau's, but a six-game losing streak in December is not how his tenure should end. Besides, the local television commercial market would come to a standstill without him.

"I hate losing," Boudreau said Tuesday. "I don't think I've been on a team that has lost more than three in a row since 2001. It's something that weighs on me 'cause I take it personally. I think I have a big part to do with this team. Obviously I don't like what's going on. I do believe in everybody in the room. We're going to get out of it."

That was pretty much the refrain from everyone at Kettler after Tuesday's practice. If Boudreau's job is to get the team on the same page, then mission accomplished. Asked questions in hushed tones more appropriate to a viewing than a locker room, Boudreau and the Caps mentioned the same talking points: They are leading their division, second behind Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall in the league.

Boudreau also must have hummed the theme from "Annie," because several players mentioned that the sun will come up tomorrow. If the day off Monday - instead of the dreaded bag skate - was intended to give everyone fresh legs and a fresh outlook, it seems to have worked.

"It's just a moment in our life right now," Alex Ovechkin said. "Right now we are losing. We just have to forget about it. We just have to forget about the losing and remember how to win."

Lots of theories are being floated: The HBO series "24/7" is a distraction (the first episode airs Wednesday night). The flu has messed with practice as well as games, making it hard for everyone to get in their work, and to work with each other. The team is so young that some of its players have never faced such a losing streak and don't know how to handle adversity.

Matt Hendricks had a different theory: The skid will pay off down the road. Get the mistakes corrected now, get losing out of your system now instead of April. "You find out who you are when you lose," Hendricks said.

For Capitals fans, this journey of self-discovery can't end soon enough.

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