The Washington Capitals' second season ended here Saturday night. Headed west a week ago with a commitment to reverse a horrendous 1-8 beginning, the Capitals lost all three games to Smythe Division opponents and went home today with a 1-11 mark and a 10-game losing streak, third longest in club history.
During the inaugural 1974-75 season, the Capitals dropped 17 straight, an NHL record. The following year they lost 12 in a row as part of a 25-game winless stretch. But those horrors supposedly were consigned to the past, never to be repeated. Now, in Year 8 it is getting late, and still the Capitals stumble.
"We were all over them at the start of the third period. I thought this was the end of it," the team captain, Ryan Walter, said after Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies. "I wish we had an answer. We just have to work harder, I guess."
Walter, honored with a rare first star in a defeat on the road, scored twice in the second period to create a 3-3 tie. Then his forceful play set up Dennis Maruk for the goal that retied things at 4-4. Finally, with Washington down, 5-4, he made a perfect pass to Wes Jarvis, who waited too long to shoot and lost a bright opportunity for another deadlock.
Walter spoke after the game, holding an icepack to his bruised knee while a bruised arm was ringed by another dressing. What he needed was an extra hand to tend another injured area. If the answer, for Ryan Walter, is to work harder, then there is no answer.
"Nobody knows what that guy goes through," said trainer Bill Bozak, trying to find a few moments for Walter while checking Greg Theberge's hip pointer and Alan Hangsleben's bruised knee, and taking a cursory glance at the 11-stitch cut on Bob Kelly's forehead.
"Walt (Walter) is an amazing man," said Coach Gary Green. "To play like that, as banged up as he was. There can't be any part of his body that isn't bruised and battered. I wish we had more of him. I want to use him at center, because he's a better defensive center, but he's a better winger offensively."
Saturday, while the Capitals' centers and defensemen repeated error after error, Walter played at left wing with Bobby Carpenter in the middle and Bengt Gustafsson on the right side.
Carpenter, the NHL's youngest player, leads the Capitals in penalty minutes and shots on goal, while sharing the top mark in assists with Walter. That is more a commentary on his veteran teammates than on his own play.
Carpenter missed an open net with the score tied at 3-3, then an off-target pass by Mike Gartner set up a tie breaker for Colorado. A two-on-one break, with weary Howard Walker caught up ice, later sent the Rockies ahead to stay. The Capitals' five-man defense, with Theberge gone and Hangsleben on the backline in his place, wilted badly in the thin air.
"We're just manufacturing ways of cutting our own throat," said General Manager Max McNab. "We have no killer instinct when we get close. They gave us the opportunities, but our passing was so bad. We can't finish off a two on one . . .
"We will be giving a long, hard look to our entire situation. I'm not satisfied with a lot of things. We come up one goal short every night."
"We have to have more than seven or eight guys working," Green said. "I can't believe we lost that game. We came back strong to tie it up and then . . . Before, if we were down two goals early, we almost died. Here we fought back, came out confident for the third period and still fell short.
"We should have come out .500 on this road trip. Instead, we're coming home empty-handed."