Coach Gary Green, in the wake of the Washington Capitals' fifth loss in six games, tried hard to find some bright spots. In so doing, he illustrated most clearly the wretched situation in which the team finds itself just two weeks into the season.
"It was a disappointing loss," Green said after the Buffalo Sabres had taken a 4-2 decision at Capital Centre Saturday night, "but at least I saw a lot more team togetherness out there. We had a meeting today, without the usual skate, and talked about it, because there hasn't been any team togetherness.
"Also, we know now we can hit. I was beginning to wonder whether some guys had forgotten how to hit."
No togetherness, no aggressiveness. That has been the story as the Capitals have gravitated to the Patrick Division cellar. So Saturday night, for the first time, the players came out hitting and backing each other up. And despite their best effort of the season, they lost to a team that was playing without its top three centers -- injured Gil Perreault, Derek Smith and Andre Savard.
Buffalo was fortunate to have two shots from the point deflect into the net, but the Capitals cannot sit back complacently and wait for a little luck of their own. This is a team in deep trouble.
Another statement by Green, the day before the game, illustrated his feelings about some of his veteran players. He was asked his evaluation of the play of hustling rookie defenseman Greg Theberge and he said:
"He works hard and at least he tries. He's not big but he tries to take the body out."
The obvious implication: many Capitals aren't trying. The fans know it, too, and they are showing that they don't care, either.
A director of the club walked into the Centre Saturday, looked around, and asked, "Where are the people?" It was a fair question. The crowd totaled only 9,597, the first four-figure Saturday night crowd since Jan. 26, 1980, and a shocking turnout considering that it was a highly publicized family-date night discount promotion.
On Wednesday, only 10,307 watched the first of four home games against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the start of that exciting Patrick Division rivalry that is at least supposed to fill some of those empty seats at the Centre, while diminishing the club's playoff chances. That crowd was a shocker, too.
It does not require a sharp memory to recall that owner Abe Pollin, at the close of last season, withheld a vote of confidence from Green and General Manager Max McNab and said instead that he had a lot of thinking to do about the hockey operation, as well as the Centre's overall position.
If Pollin is thinking about it now, he is probably wondering which of several paths to take before disaster sets in -- fire McNab, fire Green, fire marketing director Tom Hipp, or sell the team. The way things are going, the status quo promises nothing but drowning in red ink.
Pollin was not available to comment yesterday.
After Saturday's game, Buffalo General Manager-Coach Scotty Bowman, widely respected as the best in the business and a man Pollin once tried to lure to Washington, was asked to comment on what he considered the Capitals' chief deficiencies.
"The most important thing to improve is a defenseman who can control the game," Bowman said. "The weakest position in most clubs is the defense, and all the strong clubs have strong defensive units that also move the puck. Theberge is a puck handler and if he can hold up defensively, he will help.
"They need some depth overall. I think a lot of teams will concentrate their checking on the Carpenter-(Ryan) Walter-(Mike) Gartner line. They also need outstanding goaltending. (Mike) Palmateer is going to be a key."
McNab is aware that his club requires a defenseman who can provide leadership, move the puck and man the point on the power play. He has been shopping for some time, without success, and admitted that he would have foregone his Carpenter draft coup if a puck-moving defenseman had been available.
McNab's problem is that his only trade bait, outside the untouchable first line, consists of center Dennis Maruk and next year's No. 1 draft choice. Dealing Maruk would guarantee that the opposition would gang up on the Walter line. The No. 1 is caught in a conundrum.
If there is a reasonable chance that the Capitals will finish 21st overall -- and with that difficult Patrick Division schedule it is not impossible -- the No. 1 is extremely valuable, since it would secure highly touted right wing Brian Bellows. But any team providing solid talent to Washington in exchange for the draft pick would be guaranteeing the No. 1 would not snag Bellows. So far, therefore, it has been no deal.
Trade rumors persist, of course, and they will become louder as the Capitals' predicament becomes more desperate. Much of the speculation has centered around Palmateer, since Dave Parro and Rollie Boutin had performed so well in the exhibition campaign.
Palmateer's value has declined with three mediocre performances, however, and Boutin's 10-goal yield at Nova Scotia Friday makes him less of a pillar. It seems that no matter which way the Capitals turn, they find adversity.