Maybe the Caps — who coughed up a 3-0 home lead over the Boston Bruins Wednesday night before winning in overtime — are showing signs of a hangover themselves. Look at their on-ice product, which often seems less a joyful celebration and more a sullen headache. At their coach, who already has publicly reprimanded his captain and asked his players to start having more fun. At their goalie, who accused his team of playing spoiled and said the Caps must “realize it’s not easy just because we had success last year.”
That’s the key word: Easy. Last year’s team spent most of the season making the game look easier than it has any right to be. If they fell behind, they rallied. (They easily finished with the NHL’s best record when trailing after the first period.) If their offensive stars got nicked up, the injuries didn’t linger. (Their top eight forwards all played at least 74 games.) And if they lost, they immediately responded with a win, like a magnet itching to flip back to its rightful side. That team never dropped consecutive regular season games in regulation. Less than a third of the way through the season, this team already has done it twice.
Sure, the previous record-breaking season ended with another playoff disappointment. But before that, we all probably got a bit spoiled by the regular season, a top-down joyride free of speed bumps or U-turns.
“I think you’re right,” Marcus Johansson said this week. “I mean, everything went smoothly, and there were never any issues. We won, and even when we didn’t play well, we found ways to win. So yeah, it’s been a little different so far this year. But it can’t always go that smoothly as it did last year during the regular season.”
“I mean, a year like last year isn’t going to happen very often,” goaltender Braden Holtby agreed. “You look at every situation, it seemed like things went our way, be it goals in the last few seconds, lucky bounces when we were up a goal that didn’t go in our net. Those things just seemed to happen every game last year or a lot of the games.”
This season’s team, so similar on paper, was never going to come close to last season’s historic pace. The rocky past few weeks — which included a three-game losing streak, something that happened only once a year ago — made that certain. Entering Wednesday night, these Caps were already four wins (and 17 goals) behind their predecessors through 24 games, and this is the moment that team really hit its stride, winning 10 of its next 12.
That streak — sparked by Holtby’s Vezina-winning campaign, a terrifying power play and two all-star centers — created a certain intoxication. You flipped on a Capitals game and you expected to see something dazzling, plus two points in the standings. Those expectations, and the idea that success was a given, already worried Holtby last spring.
“It’s just human nature. You could tell it crept in a bit through the last part of last year,” he said. “You can force yourself and push yourself forward, but you also need those outside things like a playoff race or trying to prove yourself as a team. You need those outside things.”
That’s why players inside the dressing room are asking whether this current grind — the frequent line changes, the fan unrest, the shoulder injury that shelved T.J. Oshie for two weeks, the jumbled standings — might have long-term benefits. They aren’t blind to what happened last year. Their joyride ended in a crackup, while the Penguins emerged from December chaos to win the Stanley Cup.
This is all speculative, them (and us) trying to plaster meaning onto a sport filled with random bounces and ridiculously narrow margins. But it sounds good, anyhow.
“Maybe, in the end, this is what we need,” Johansson said. “We need a little something to happen to get us going and get us pissed off and realizing that it’s not always just going to be a smooth ride. I mean, it’s a tough league, and it’s going to take a lot to win, and sometimes you need maybe to go through some controversy and some bumps to get you all the way, I think.”
In the meantime, the product has sometimes been an eyesore, even when the advanced numbers indicate it isn’t time to panic. Since opening night, grinder Jay Beagle has as many goals as presumed second-liners Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky combined. The power play — near the top of the league a year ago — sometimes looks lost and now ranks 22nd. Oshie’s absence seems to have leeched offensive creativity from the roster, while Kuznetsov no longer commands your attention every time he touches the puck.
“Let’s get the joy back in our game,” Coach Barry Trotz has told his players, and TV viewers have no doubt shouted something similar at their screens.
“We’re still trying to find our game,” Kuznetsov said. “You remember the Caps from last year? I remember, too, but this year we’re trying to make something new, trying to do something different that can help us in the playoffs, maybe can help us at the end of the year. . . . I don’t know if you see this, but I see that.”
Enough experimentation, enough patience, enough losing streaks, and this team could find itself clawing for a playoff spot in March and April. In December, that’s still hard to imagine. So for now, instead of watching an elite team pull away from its rivals, we see a sometimes frustrated group trying to pull itself out of the sludge.
“I don’t know how the story ends,” Williams said. “But I know you can learn a lot about your team and you can bond together when you’re in a tough time and you come out of it smelling fine.”
How’s it smell now?
“Not putrid but not great,” Williams joked. “It smells tolerable, for a short period of time.”
If that odor lasts much longer? Go ahead and reach for the aspirin.