Wednesday marks a month since the Washington Capitals brought in Dale Hunter to take over as head coach after firing Bruce Boudreau. While the team has made progress in certain areas of its game, the Capitals continue to suffer from self-inflicted mistakes.
As they prepare to host the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, the Capitals sit outside the playoff picture, having dropped four of their last six outings. Washington has won consecutive games under Hunter just once and are 5-6-1 since the coaching change was made.
While the Capitals have not yet reached the midpoint of the season and the standings are tight, players are feeling the urgency to get on the winning track as rapidly as possible. With 11 of the next 15 contests coming against Eastern foes, the next few weeks may go a long way to determine which way the season will go.
“If people don’t realize it, we’re in a dog fight. We’re not playing good hockey, we need to improve right now,” forward Brooks Laich said Tuesday. “There’s no complacency — there’s no thinking that there’s a magic switch that’s going to make it turn on. It’s going to take work to get out of this. It’s going to take work and believing in your teammates and that’s the only way it’s going to happen. We need results right now, that’s the long and short of it.”
This is something of a new situation for the Capitals, who in each of the past three seasons have been no lower than fourth place in the East at this time of the year. Each game that slips by without a point gained can cause Washington to slip further down the standings.
“You see the standings,” Hunter said. “You can’t fall behind. It’s too tough to make up points later on in the season. We’ve got to get our points now.”
While there have been contests that offer encouragement over the past month, like the 4-1 win over Nashville on Dec. 20 when the Capitals’ were dogged with their forecheck and stayed true to their defensive assignments, there have been corresponding slip-ups in ensuing games.
One successful performance rarely seems to translate into another the following game as the team regresses into its bad habits: not winning one-on-one battles for the puck, failing to create traffic in front of an opposing net, starting slow in a contest, committing turnovers and trying to force plays rather than make the simple one.
All are correctable, Capitals players and coaches say.
“It’s a little frustrating, especially when you know what you can do out there,” forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “Everything the coaches are saying, we’ve got to suck it in, learn something from it and think a little more about what we’re doing out there. Now we’re just running around. I don’t know what to call it.”
The most recent example of the words ringing hollow came on Monday in what turned into an ugly 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals knew they needed a fast start to get on track after the holiday break, but they came out flat and allowed four goals in the first period.
For the Capitals, the matchup against New York offers a chance to build a foundation and regain some confidence. The Rangers have won five straight and are considered a model of a hard-working, disciplined club that’s tough to play against — exactly the type of adjectives that the Capitals often use when explaining the type of play they’re seeking.
“We’ve just got to bear down. Not everybody’s reading into the system like chipping the puck in when we have to,” defenseman John Erskine said. “I think when everybody buys into that and getting our forecheck going — that’s when we’ll start being a better team.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green took part in practice with the rest of the team Tuesday for the first time since suffering a strained right groin muscle on Nov. 11. It was a sign of forward progress for the defenseman, who has missed 20 consecutive games with the injury, but there is no timetable for his return. “I think I’m going to have to be cognizant of this for the rest of my career, probably,” Green said of the injury. . . . Forward Mathieu Perreault rejoined the team and took part in practice a day after being speared in the midsection and being evaluated at a Buffalo-area hospital following Monday’s loss.