The day after the Washington Capitals' most painful loss of the season was similar to many others. The coaching staff put the team through fundamental drills, emphasizing simplicity. Coach Ron Wilson lectured the club on the ice. The same familiar problems--failing to play a full 60 minutes and straying from the team's defensive system--were discussed.
And some new problems arose. Center Jan Bulis, second on the team in scoring, has a muscle strain in his neck, Wilson said, and is doubtful for tonight's game against New Jersey, though the injury is not thought to be serious. "I'm making plans like Buli is not going to play," Wilson said. "If he plays, it's a bonus." Defenseman Sergei Gonchar also has a muscle strain, but Wilson said he is planning on Gonchar being in the lineup.
But talk focused on the team's woes, after Thursday's 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers, and not on individuals. Every player knew the Capitals had handed two points to a team that was reeling--an underachiever with the league's highest payroll. The collapse ended early in overtime. Washington (5-8-2, 13 points) had led with 19 seconds left in regulation. It was up by two goals in the second period, and in control of the game. All of it slipped away.
"It's pretty simple," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We have to do what we did in practice--chip it off the boards, make easy plays. That's how you win. We're not a fancy team. We're not good enough to be fancy--I don't think any teams in the league are any more. We have to play gritty and simple, and sometimes that's the toughest thing to do--keep it simple.
"We didn't do that in the second period [Thursday], for example. The second period was a zoo. We started trading chances with them and it just doesn't work like that. We're not that kind of team. We can't do that. That's not our game."
Wilson chastised his team during yesterday's practice for taking aim at the Rangers' empty net in the final minute, rather than protecting its own. He lashed out at players' insistence on being too fancy. And he was dismayed that the Capitals let New York dictate the game while two goals down. The Rangers played wide-open, run-and-gun hockey out of desperation, and the Capitals failed to tighten their defense.
Wilson criticized players for being more concerned with their scoring total than their plus-minus rating, and bemoaned players who have yet to score but still show a resistance to playing the team's system.
"It's 3-1 and [the Rangers] can't even get over the red line and we just let it get away," Wilson said. "I don't understand it. It happens all the time. 'This is working but it's not good enough for me.' So we try that fancy [stuff] and it blows up right in your face. . . .
"We're playing to get a cheer from the fans for a fancy play, but the biggest cheer of the night is when the puck goes in the net. And it doesn't matter if it's Chris Simon coming around and firing one off a defenseman's skate--that gets the biggest cheer of the night. And the other things that get cheers are a big hit or a fight, and if you're stick-handling around then you're playing for me and not for we as far as I'm concerned."
Wilson's diatribe came as no surprise to his players. They fully expected it. The Capitals created numerous scoring chances but could not put the game away, something they have struggled with the past few years.
Wilson promoted defense-minded players Jeff Halpern and Ulf Dahlen in the third period Thursday and benched three players. Glen Metropolit and James Black were both healthy but took only one shift in the third. Bulis also took only one shift in the period. The team said Thursday night that Bulis was not hurt, but Wilson said yesterday that Bulis's limited action in the third was a precaution because of the neck injury.
Halpern was back in a top role in practice and likely will take Bulis's spot centering Steve Konowalchuk and Richard Zednik tonight. Metropolit was back with his regular linemates--Peter Bondra and Adam Oates--and Dahlen likely will skate with Black and Mike Eagles on the fourth line.