Eleven months ago, after the Washington Capitals defeated the Colorado Rockies, a Capital Centre crowd approached delirium on hearing a public-address announcement that "the Washington Capitals are now in sole possession of 15th place."
On Sunday night, following that awful 11-7 loss to Quebec, the Capitals once again achieved sole possession of 15th place. This time nobody in Capital Centre was cheering.
Tenth for much of the season and 12th as recently as Saturday, the Capitals have now stumbled winless through eight games while other clubs are mounting playoff drives. That first Stanley Cup game in Washington, which seemed inevitable a month ago, is fast assuming some of the mirage qualities that eventually prevailed in 1980.
One of the surprises Sunday night was the absence of any chants of "Goodbye Gary," so much more alliterative than the "Goodbye Danny" choruses that contributed to Danny Belisle's demise and the arrival 15 months ago of Gary Green as coach.
The fans, like owner Abe Pollin, evidently have confidence that Green is the man to bring the Capitals to the promised land -- a Stanley Cup championship. Whether the players are convinced of Green's infallibility, however, is another matter.
The discipline that carried the club to its first-half status has been lacking in recent weeks. One of the results has been a defensive breakdown, with the Capitals yielding 46 goals during their eight-game slide. Many players are not adhering to Green's system and others are not thinking clearly. After three-quarters of the 80-game season, the impression cannot be erased that some of them are sick of hockey.
Green, a master of coaching technique and motivation, appears to have contributed to that situation through too much coaching and too much motivating. The players have been switched around so often that they appear unsure of their roles and the frequent motivation lectures seem to have created so much pressure that they are too tight to perform fluidly.
Less than a month ago, General Manager Max McNab visited the recreation room to deliver a pep talk at a team meeting, pointing out the importance of a playoff berth to the franchise. Then Green, flouting the tradition of playing games one at a time, set a goal of 69 points to achieve that playoff spot and posted a chart to show the progress toward same, of which there has been remarkably little.
Hardly once in the past month have the Capitals used the same lines in consecutive games. Green instead has maneuvered his players like chess pieces, scouting opponents and then determining the ideal matchups to throw against them. On paper, it is an excellent system, but it has contributed to chaos on the ice.
Ryan Walter and Glen Currie shuttle from center to left wing. Bob Kelly turned up at right wing Sunday after a full season on the left side. Wes Jarvis and Bengt Gustafsson have played all three forward positions. Alan Hangsleben, bounced from left wing to defense to right wing, was sent out on defense without notice for the first shift one night and afterward asked Green for at least a few hours' warning so he could properly prepare for a game.
After the 5-5 tie with Chicago, when he devised new line combinations specifically for the Black Hawks, Green was asked if he felt any player could be switched in that fashion without restricting his effectiveness.
"Yes," Green said. "As a coach, you have to know what you can do with your players."
Green also is aware, however, that the players no longer are responding to his moves.
"We're not getting a consistent 60 minutes out there, that's our problem," Green said after Sunday's fiasco. "When you get 11 goals scored on you, you have to ask about the defensive concentration of everybody on the ice. We're all in the boat together and if that didn't tell us something out there tonight I don't know how many more clues we need on what to do as a team. We have to get the capabilities out of each one of them. And it will be done."
Those are brave words, but there is doubt at this stage whether some players are absorbing Green's phrases any longer.
Memory recalls the happy days of early season and assistant coach Bill Mahoney, who came here from McMaster University, commenting, "It's sure nice to tell players something and have them do it right away."
The other day, after Mahoney's voice was frequently raised in anger over the failure of some Capitals to follow simple practice instructions, Mahoney was reminded of his earlier statement and he replied, "Things are different in February than they were in September."
Pulled out of context to define the Capitals' current plight, those are apt words.
Of course, in September the Capitals had a healthy Mike Palmateer, they had Paul MacKinnon and Pat Ribble anchoring the defense and they did not have older players buckling under heavy-duty pressure they had rarely experienced in recent seasons. Names like Jean Pronovost, Rick Smith and Pierre Bouchard come to mind among those struggling after playing so well earlier.
It is almost unfair to name any names, because it took a 20-man failure to produce that awful setback Sunday. The 20th man is Green, and he may be the only one who can dramatically change the present situation. It is time for the coach to sit back, forget the opposition for once and examine his own role. tWith one-quarter of the season left, it is not too late to turn things around. w
McNab and Green had a lengthy discussion yesterday over possible player moves. . . Goalie Wayne Stephenson will not skate until his ailing back is completely sound. Dave Parro will back up Palmateer in Chicago Wednesday. . . X-rays showed no crack in Ribble's left elbow and he practiced yesterday.