The party is over for the struggling Washington Capitals. There were no smiles during yesterday's practice at Mount Vernon, as Coach Bryan Murray put the team through an intensive drill that concluded with stops and starts.
Despite the physically demanding workout, Murray indicated that he found no problem with the players' conditioning or willingness to work.
"We're just not in shape mentally," Murray said. "Time after time, we'll play a pretty good hockey game, work hard, be in a very competitive situation and then give it away.
"Mentally, we're letting ourselves off the hook too often. I told the players I was going to tighten up the practices. There will be less horseplay and we're going to get more work done. Maybe a demand on the bodies will get things straightened out in the minds.
"Physically, we're fine. We have to shake up the upper part. Maybe we're not tough enough on ourselves. Certainly, we're not bearing down."
The Capitals (5-5-4) have fewer points than 13 other teams, a sorry situation for a club that was expected to be a Stanley Cup contender.
In four of their five defeats, the Capitals have blown leads. In all four ties, the opposition has come from behind to score the last goal. The most recent incident, and the trigger to yesterday's crackdown, was the 3-3 game with Minnesota Tuesday night. The North Stars tied on Tom McCarthy's third-period power play goal and several times came close to victory.
"In the third period, (Minnesota goalie Gilles) Meloche is way out of the net, one of our guys has him cold and he misses by 10 feet," Murray said. "If we're going to get things like that, and guys staying out too long on a shift, then I'm going to restrict their ice time until they get their act together."
The Capitals shut out eight opponents last season and held 16 others to one goal. Not once this season have they held an opponent under two goals.
The future does not appear especially bright, since the Capitals play at Buffalo Friday and then are home against the Sabres Saturday. Over the years, Buffalo has been Washington's toughest opponent, with 33 victories, six ties and two losses.
Gaetan Duchesne, a superb penalty killer who incurred a broken left hand in the season opener, will return to action Friday. Although he has been skating regularly, he was very tired after yesterday's practice and no doubt will need some time to reach game condition.
"As much hard work as you do on your own, the time off catches up to you," Murray said. "He was hurting today."
"I find out today that just skating is not like playing," Duchesne said. "The stop and go was very tough on me. I had none of that for five weeks. My upper body is not like before, either. It should take about a week to get used to it.
"It was very tough just sitting down and watching. I can do nothing. I don't know what's happened with the penalty killing," Duchesne continued.
"We didn't change anything and I know the guys are working hard every night. I wish I'd seen something that I could tell them to help. I know for sure we can't give up two power play goals a game and win."
The Capitals, who yielded only 39 extra-man goals to lead the league in penalty killing last season, have been victimized 20 times in 14 games and rank last in that area.
"We've been to the chalkboard almost on a daily basis," said Doug Jarvis, the penalty-killing leader. "We've seen films and we've had countless meetings.
"Every game, it seems to hinge on a different individual mistake. It's not things you can diagram on a blackboard. It has to be accomplished on the ice.
"It seems to be everybody -- one game, one fellow; the next game, somebody else. We're all responsible and each one of us has to do our job effectively."