After the Washington Capitals' third-period meltdown Tuesday night in a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Coach Ron Wilson was steaming. He emerged from an office at the Kings' new Staples Center outraged by his team's performance. Today, Wilson put the Capitals through a tough practice with plenty of skating and had calmed down considerably.
But the reason for his displeasure remains: His defense continues to make crucial mistakes around the net. The Capitals (2-4-2) have rarely played cohesively for a full 60 minutes. They have blown two-goal leads in consecutive games, have just one tie in their last four contests and Friday night face an Anaheim team that smacked them 7-1 last week.
After Tuesday's game, Wilson vowed to make sweeping roster changes. Before practice today, he met privately with defenseman Sergei Gonchar and center Andrei Nikolishin. But the lines were mostly the same, with James Black teaming with Peter Bondra and Adam Oates in place of Mike Eagles.
Following the loss, Wilson said: "If I have to go into Anaheim and sit some big people out and then get my [backside] handed to me, and our [backside] handed to us, it's something I have to do. Some people don't get it. We've got some young people who have struggled and we keep going with them and I can't reward people with ice time who aren't getting the job done. It's that simple. . . .
"I'm looking for results here and a commitment to play for the team and if guys don't want to play the way I ask them to play, then I'll just leave. It's simple. If they want someone else, fine, that's no big deal to me. . . . If some guys don't want to listen to me, then fine, I'll find something else to do."
Wilson was fuming, but he isn't going anywhere. Although the recurring problems are troubling, Wilson realizes he can't jeopardize his team's ability to win just to send a message to certain players.
"I was just emotional after the game [Tuesday] night, that's all," Wilson said today. "I've got to do what's best for the team and we're sitting here trying to make mature decisions with the lineup and talk to people about what troubles us as coaches.
"We have to find more stick-to-it-ness. We can't be up 2-0 but think, 'I haven't scored a goal tonight.' [If] we're up 2-0, we should win the game. I don't care who you're playing. We've made lots of careless blunders and we're talking about them and now we've go to go out and do it. I'm looking for more consistent concentration. It's mental."
The coach is hardly alone in his frustration. Goalie Olaf Kolzig was left defenseless on all five goals Tuesday night, not an unusual occurrence this season. The Capitals' forwards have let their men roam free in the defensive zone, and pucks that should be cleared keep finding their way to the opposition.
Kolzig has done his part to keep his team in games by making key saves, many of which have been spectacular stops on odd-man rushes. But his individual statistics have suffered because so many of the shots he faces are high-quality chances that he has little chance of saving. After the Capitals allowed goals on consecutive rushes in the third period Tuesday, just 33 seconds apart on what Wilson called "horrific breakdowns," Kolzig smashed his stick on the cross bar, whacked it on the ice and chucked the splintered instrument to the blue line.
"We can execute our system a lot better than we're doing," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We're going away from it for five minutes and we get in trouble. We don't do it for all 60 minutes. It's just basic hockey, things you have to do. We don't do stuff we should do.
"It's pretty frustrating, especially because we basically know what the problem is. . . . I do wonder about it. I wonder why we keep making the same mistakes, because it shouldn't happen. I wonder why. I don't know why, but I wonder why."