Alex Ovechkin sank to his knees and stared at the goal lamp, glowing red and taunting the Washington Capitals one more time Sunday night at Verizon Center.
Defensive-zone turnovers buried them in Edmonton and Vancouver and later at home against Detroit. They had become fodder on the corkboard where Coach Barry Trotz tacked his criticism. And now, as Ovechkin watched the Arizona Coyotes celebrate a fourth unanswered goal in Washington’s 6-5 loss, a goal caused when he whiffed on a pass and fell trying to wave the puck away, they became the latest catalyst for a night unraveled.
“It’s an old story already,” Trotz said. “It’s too old for me.”
Standing behind the dais, once the Capitals had finished a long closed-door meeting that later turned into a players-only affair, Trotz threw his hands up in bewilderment and then brought down the hammer. The behavior, he said, needed improvement, no more so than when a string of mental mistakes pumped life into the Coyotes before the second intermission. Desperate for a victory, Washington crumbled, allowing at least four regulation goals for the fourth straight game. And if nothing changed, Trotz promised, drastic measures would follow.
“That behavior has to change, or we have to change people. It’s plain and simple,” Trotz said. “Ice time, look at different people in different situations. To me it’s absolutely unacceptable. They have to fix their behavior. It’s my job to fix the behavior. I don’t like the behavior. If they’re not going to fix it internally, individually, then I’ll make sure I fix it.”
If Trotz feared anything Sunday when he arrived at the arena, it came from worrying his Capitals might deviate from their strategy and principles, tossed off the tracks by raw emotion. They had limped home fuming Saturday night after a third straight defeat at Tampa Bay, another game in which a second-period lead failed to survive, another game many inside the locker room felt they deserved to win.
Then they watched a triumphant opening period — in which they built a 3-1 lead behind strong play from Tom Wilson (on the top line), Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) and Ovechkin (his first goal in six games) — erased by mistake-filled second and third periods. They trudged into a scheduled off-day ruminating over their worst outing of the young Trotz era, against an Arizona team that had just given winless Carolina its first victory of the season.
“A little grim,” forward Troy Brouwer said, describing the mood inside the locker room as players dressed and hurried out. “We looked like two different teams out there at times, three different teams at other times. Just not playing well enough to win.”
After Ovechkin stretched the Capitals’ lead to 3-1 with less than four minutes remaining in the second period, Washington appeared to lose its way, and the ensuing moments became Trotz’s biggest area of critique.
First, the Capitals took an icing call, too exhausted to carry the puck from the offensive zone. So Trotz used a timeout — “unnecessarily,” he added later. Straight from the faceoff, with 26 seconds remaining in the period, Ovechkin was banished to the box for high-sticking. The Capitals waved their arms in confusion over the call. Ovechkin giggled in disbelief. Then with just five seconds left, Shane Doan tipped a puck past Justin Peters to tie the game at 3.
“I don’t think there’s one guy in the room who’s happy with the way he played the past four, five games,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I don’t think it’s one or two guys who’s responsible. Everybody’s had their moments.”
Washington finished with nine penalties and handed the Coyotes six power plays, two of which resulted in goals, and a third ended one second before defenseman Michael Stone whipped a slap shot from the right side. The Capitals knew Arizona’s affinity for the man advantage — seven of its 22 goals this season had come in such situations — and still couldn’t remain outside the box.
Then again, the Capitals admitted their turnover problems, too, which led to Arizona’s third-period avalanche at even strength. Rookie Tobias Rieder finished the Coyotes’ scoring with the first tally of his NHL career with 4:27 remaining, pushing the lead to 6-3.
Next came brief solace with garbage-time goals from Joel Ward and Brouwer, muted celebrations from inside a near-empty building and, finally, the ominous closed dressing-room doors, behind which the Capitals tossed their grievances onto the freshly renovated carpet and tried to explain how the same demons could bury them again.
“We need to work harder,” Brouwer said. “We need to work smarter. We’re a good team in here, but we have to prove it. We have to show it.”