The Washington Capitals' players apparently have five games in which to show whether they want Bryan Murray to continue as their coach.
General Manager David Poile has scheduled a "reevaluation" following the game against Philadelphia Dec. 26. By that time, unless there is a reversal of form, the Capitals will be resting in the Patrick Division cellar. They have lost four of five and lack both intensity and aggressiveness, not to mention scoring punch.
Poile insists he has provided Murray with the players to produce a winner. Although Poile talks of changing that cast if it becomes necessary, it is unrealistic to contemplate major changes in the team, in large part because of a dearth of talent in the farm system.
Since it is impossible to fire the team, the only viable alternative, and one that has been employed with frequency in the NHL, would appear to be getting rid of the coach. It is a very real possibility here -- unless the players turn it around.
A year ago, Poile backed Murray to the hilt during the Bob Carpenter turmoil, in effect firing the player. Yesterday, Poile reiterated, "As I've said before when we've gone through hard times, I am not considering a coaching change at this time. Right now, I'm interested in winning games, and the coaches are working hard to right the ship."
Murray, however, is realistic enough to know that the current situation cannot continue. Asked whether he expected the coaching staff to be part of the reevaluation, he said, "I'm sure we all will be. When a team performs the way we've performed, the whole situation has to be looked at. The way we're going, playing with such inconsistency, you have to wonder why the work level at least isn't where it should be.
"We keep hearing, and I heard it again in Detroit, that we're rated as one of the top teams in the league. But I look at our lineup and we're certainly not playing like one of the top teams. We haven't played that way in more than one or two games, although we've had occasional periods of high-level performance."
Murray has done virtually everything at his command to wake up his team, without noticeable effect. Wednesday in Detroit, he allowed his frustrations to reach the stage where he kept the team in the dressing room beyond the scheduled start of the third period, drawing a minor penalty, to "get their attention."
Yesterday, Murray took one more step. Angered by a lackadaisical practice session, he ordered the players to attend a 7 p.m. meeting at Capital Centre.
"I wanted to show them that things are not cut and dried," Murray said. "They're not going to come and play and lose, come and play and lose, and then just go home and forget about it. There's a major difference between winning and losing and part of it is inconvenience."
Only four players can reasonably be evaluated as playing up to their capabilities -- defenseman Scott Stevens, center Dale Hunter and wingers Mike Gartner and Kelly Miller. Beyond them, the Capitals have displayed shocking weaknesses in the areas of physical play, scoring and handling the puck in their end.
Both Toronto and Detroit dominated the Capitals earlier this week by manhandling them physically, the Red Wings with such ease that Coach Jacques Demers said he felt "Washington looked tired."
Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson were particular targets of big, strong forwards who were willing to throw their bodies around. The Capitals' big hits this season would not fill a 30-second commercial break.
"There is no willingness to get involved physically," Murray said. "Teams have come after us and we haven't responded. Guys at a high level are taken out of their games and we don't do anything about it.
"Everybody wants to be a player and it appears that most guys don't want to play a role. I won't name names, but five or six guys have a role to show up physically every night. They're not doing it, because they want to be players."
The Capitals have been in desperate straits before during Murray's six-year tenure and they always have pulled out of it. Usually, a key factor was the presence of captain Rod Langway, who spurred his teammates through word and deed.
Langway is trying to overcome a painful back problem and is not in a position to intervene this time. But he answered Murray's request yesterday that he join him behind the bench, starting with tonight's Capital Centre contest against Toronto.
"He wants some enthusiasm and maybe I can be a cheerleader," Langway said. "The guys are frustrated and I'm not going to tell anybody what to do. But they can ask me things if they want to. The guys don't need any more pressure. They need to be relaxed, then go out and work hard."
Langway did have a suggestion for his teammates, based on experience.
"You have to put things in perspective and put more emphasis on the game," Langway said. "When things are bad, it's easy to go off the ice and go home. But when you go home, you think about it. It's better to stay here and work on things. Last year, when Davy Christian was struggling, he'd stay after practice and shoot 100 pucks top shelf and he pulled out of it.
"Hopefully, they'll turn it around by themselves. Even though I'm not playing, we have a heck of a club. Some things just aren't clicking right now. It's a matter of working together to change it."
Flyers 4, Islanders 3:
Brian Propp and Rick Tocchet each scored a second-period goal as Philadelphia, playing at home, extended its unbeaten streak to 10 games.
Tocchet broke a 2-2 tie with his sixth goal of the season, and Propp padded the lead to 4-2 with his 11th goal 3:21 later as Philadelphia won for the eighth time in its last 10 games.
Mikko Makela scored his second power-play goal of the game, with a two-man advantage, to cut Philadelphia's lead to 4-3 at 17:41 of the second period. The Islanders put 10 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes, but failed to beat goaltender Ron Hextall.
The Flyers took a 4-2 lead on Propp's goal at 15:33, when he took a pass from Dave Poulin on the fly and beat sliding New York goaltender Kelly Hrudey. At 12:12, Tocchet took a pass from Pelle Eklund and beat Hrudey with a wrist shot from 15 feet.
Penguins 7, Devils 4:
Mario Lemieux scored two goals and set up the game-winner by Randy Cunneyworth midway through the third period as Pittsburgh won in East Rutherford, N.J.
The loss was the fourth straight for New Jersey and marked the first time it has lost consecutive home games this season. The Devils are 12-3-1 at Brendan Byrne Arena.
Lemieux sent a pass to defenseman Phil Bourque at the point and the rookie fired a shot that Cunneyworth tipped past goalie Alain Chevrier. It was Cunneyworth's 16th goal of the season and came just 12 seconds after Randy Velischek was sent off for holding.
Rookie Dave McIllwain added two goals in the final four minutes as Pittsburgh ended a two-game losing streak and defeated New Jersey for the first time in three meetings this year.
Blues 2, Whalers 0:
Veteran goaltender Rick Wamsley stopped 22 shots for his eighth career shutout and second this season as St. Louis won in Hartford.
Rookie Tony Hrkac and Rick Meagher supplied the offense for the Blues, who extended their unbeaten streak to five games (3-0-2).
Wamsley's steady work ended a five-game unbeaten streak for the Whalers, who failed to connect on five power-play chances.
Bruins 3, Canucks 2:
In Boston, Ray Bourque's second goal of the game at 2:16 of overtime lifted the Bruins over Vancouver.
Ken Linseman converted Reed Larson's pass with 2:47 remaining to tie it for the Bruins.
Vancouver took a 2-0 lead in the first period on Petri Skriko's power-play goal while Boston was two men short. John Leblanc had given Vancouver a 1-0 lead earlier in the period, taking a pass from Stan Smyl from behind the net and beating goalie Reggie Lemelin.