On Sunday night, every player on the Washington Capitals' roster gathered around a table at an Atlanta restaurant, ran up a substantial bill and, perhaps, became a more unified hockey team. The annual rookie dinner was an especially lively affair given the club's woeful start, and several players expressed candid opinions and challenged their teammates to rededicate themselves to hard work.
The Capitals had lost to the weak Atlanta Thrashers a few hours earlier and after just 25 games had already reached a critical point in their season. Privately, players wondered if the team was fraying and major changes were about to be made given their lack of discipline and inconsistent play. The expression of those concerns seems to have bonded the group. Washington throttled the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night and has an opportunity for redemption when the Thrashers visit MCI Center tonight.
"It's amazing what is said when the wine is flowing," goaltender and emotional leader Olaf Kolzig said. "The truth comes out a little bit. But everything was positive; it was nothing really negative, and we sort of realized what kind of team we have here and that we were underachieving and we needed to be committed to certain things.
"To see if that dinner was the difference, only time will tell. It's only been one game so far, but to go into a building like Pittsburgh's against a team that has been our nemesis for a long time and play the way we did is a good indication. But only time will tell."
Three years ago, the Capitals snapped out of a skid after a spirited team meeting during a flight home from the West Coast. Last season's rookie dinner was held in March when the team was already close to playoff elimination and adjusting to the trade that sent leading scorer and former captain Adam Oates to Philadelphia. But the team went on to shut out the vaunted Colorado Avalanche and finish the season on a 9-2-1-1 tear, falling just short of the postseason.
Coach Bruce Cassidy, hired in May after Ron Wilson was fired, made team bonding a priority in the preseason, organizing an outing to a ranch during a weeklong trip to Dallas in September for a day of trust-boosting and relationship-forming exercises. While the coaching staff had no part in the rookie dinner, Cassidy is well aware of the import of such outings.
"I've been harping on teamwork since I got here, because I had heard it was a bit of an issue here the last couple of years," Cassidy said. "But I also know they won a division title a couple of years ago and went to the finals, so it's there. It's always there, but you've just got to work on it, and that's been the biggest thing with us.
"And unfortunately along the way [the coaching staff] has maybe overlooked some of the deficiencies on the ice trying to focus on getting the guys to be accountable to one another, but we're hoping to get that across and maybe that meeting did something. Maybe they took it upon themselves and they were tired of it; sometimes you just get tired of losing and tired of being a group of individuals and you want to get it going."
Cassidy has spent more time harping on X's and O's in the last few days, focusing on a more simplistic defensive system -- a change the players coveted. In turn, he hopes the players remain more vocal and continue to encourage and prod each other to turn the season around as they did Sunday night.
"Everybody walked away with something from it," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "Maybe sometimes it looks like someone is not trying as hard, but a lot of that is just frustration. It's not that someone cares more than another guy, it's just that the frustration levels have been high around here and everyone voiced their concerns and we all realized we're in this together."
Capitals Notes: Wilson, who was named San Jose's coach Wednesday, was granted permission to speak with Tim Hunter about becoming one of his assistants. Hunter works in Washington's player development department and was one of Wilson's assistants during his five-year tenure here. . . .
Defenseman Jean-Francois Fortin practiced yesterday for the first time since suffering from a stomach virus, but he will not play tonight. . . .
Defenseman Calle Johansson rejoined the team for practice after being given Wednesday off. . . .
Michael Nylander brings an eight-game scoring streak into tonight's game, matching the longest by a Capital last season. . . .
Injured enforcer Stephen Peat (hand) skated yesterday for the first time without a cast but is not ready to resume practicing yet.