[Ed. note: This is fifth installment of Capitals During Wartime, a series about Washington's struggles before the 2012 trade deadline. Read previous entries about coaching, negativity, road performance, and centers.]
Everyone has the moment when you realize that the Caps are in serious trouble. You know when mine was, because that’s when I started this Capitals During Wartime series. For Ian, it was Monday night, when he finally admitted to me how worried he was. For the rest of the Internet and the broader hockey community, that moment is right now.
This article documents The Week from Hell, a litany of depressing and infuriating stories about your Washington Capitals. Because we need a single, coherent record of what exactly it was like when things couldn’t possibly get any worse.
The fourth item in a column by thirty dimensional thinker Elliotte Friedman told us that George McPhee has been the most active deal-maker in the run-up to the trade deadline. With this knowledge, we must view all team moves through the prism of an impending trade– and we must view the team itself as we might a long-term relationship on the verge of a nasty break-up.
Tomas Vokoun missed Sunday’s and Monday’s games due to the flu, disrupting the impeccable goaltending that has kept the Capitals just barely afloat. Michal Neuvirth was expected to make both starts, but was replaced on Monday by Hershey’s Braden Holtby. Video of an embarrassing 90-foot goal surrendered by Holtby showed up on Yahoo and the Pensblog.
When asked about why he chose Holtby over Neuvirth, Coach Dale Hunter made two distressing points. First, he said the reason for the call-up was because he didn’t want Neuvirth playing back-to-back games (a feeling he did not share for Holtby, who played even later on Sunday than Neuvirth). Then, on Wednesday, Hunter told WaPo’s Katie Carrera this:
It’s one of those things that if he was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No.
Neuvirth said he was not informed of the replacement until he arrived at Verizon Center Monday night, and he found the whole ordeal “tough to swallow.”
Adding to the rift between Hunter and his players is the ongoing saga with Mike Knuble. Scratched in the last three games (all Caps losses), Knuble made several angst-ridden but polite statements to the press about his situation. The 39-year-old, Stanley-Cup-winning veteran (who has scored more in his 30s than Wayne Gretzky and had not been benched in a decade) called his first scratch “humbling” and the second “frustrating.” By the third game he missed, Knuble was musing on hypothetical trade situations, saying:
You want to go somewhere where you’re going to play and contribute to the team. If you can’t do it one place, then you got to go.
Perhaps aware of the growing disquiet, Knuble declined to comment further about the matter this week, telling the Washington Times’ Stephen Whyno that he has been “a little too dramatic,” and telling CSN’s Chuck Gormley that he has already “said [his] peace.”
Even Coach Hunter offered encouraging words about Knuble, adding, “He looked good. . . He’s chomping at the bit to go, so again we’ll see what happens.” Knuble skated with the third line at Wednesday’s practice and is expected to play in Florida this weekend.
Caps icon and assistant goalie coach Olie Kolzig leapt to the defense of Dale Hunter on Wednesday, offering this tasty quote about Hunter’s methods to hungry reporters from various outlets:
If that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup then I think at the end of the day if that happens all those unpopular decisions will all of the sudden look pretty smart.
It was a stirring and contrary position, but one undercut quite a bit for three reasons: 1) the paucity of Kolzig’s appearances at Kettler; b) the ominously qualifying “if” preposition; and iii) Neil Greenberg’s recent recalibration of the Capitals’ chances for a postseason. Greenberg observes that the Capitals face a daunting challenge to make the playoffs, and that “the margin of error is razor thin no matter what the future holds for the roster.”
Kolzig was then apparently asked the age-old question: what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin? Kolzig, who was once one of D.C.’s most loved players, advised that Ovechkin should “maybe not get wrapped up too much with the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”
Ovechkin, for his part, dispelled any accusations of his celebrity overriding his play by… debuting this new commercial for Verizon.
At that point, contributors to national sports networks offered their takes. A.J. Perez of Fox Sports pointed out that fan attendance at Capitals practice has diminished significantly, and Joe Yerdon of NBC’s ProHockeyTalk basked in the schadenfreude like he always does.
The Valentine’s Day edition of Sportsnet’s Marek vs Wyshynski amped up the volume on the Capitals’ suffering even more by making this its question of the day: How would you fix the Washington Capitals? [conversation is around one hour in]. Any kind of in-depth discussion by national media about a single team usually retreats into nebulous characterization or innuendo (which is fine, since those guys have 29 other teams to worry about and besides– it’s sports radio, designed to provoke). Their conclusion was more about Alex Ovechkin’s decline and some perceived conflict between Ovechkin and Hunter than any kind of systemic problems (like defensive reformulation or moving away from a run-and-gun style).
But really, what has gone wrong with Alex Ovechkin beyond the normal ravages of time and changing from a system where offense trumps all to one that either inhibits offense or just cannot generate it? Ovechkin himself talked down his own shortfalls by advancing another pernicious excuse: injury.
It’s not a secret that we miss [Mike Green] and Nicky [Backstrom]. Some people might think it’s good for us to see how good we are without those guys. Everybody knows how good we are, but without those guys this team is not that good.
Even the good folks in the organization got in on the struggle. On Wednesday’s Capitals Report, John Walton said he considers inconsistency to be chief among the team’s troubles. Senior Writer Mike Vogel published to Dump’n'Chase a treatise on the changes the team has tried to effect positive results without success.
But we finish where we began. In a lengthy piece for Monday’s Washington Post, John Feinstein sat down with George McPhee. The crucial argument McPhee makes is that the team was great until they got hurt:
. . . We’ve only had that team on ice for eight games. We’re 8-0 in those games.
Injury is an eventuality in hockey as columnist Tracee Hamilton pointed out (and for once, I agree with her). A team that cannot withstand a single injury might not have been that good to begin with. Regardless, we now know that McPhee will be busy at the deadline, and that means some of our favorites are going to leave D.C.
Maybe that just means saying goodbye to players who might play better with another club. But isn’t that pretty much every player at this point?
Strange — isn’t it — that the spotlight of national attention is brightest on the Capitals while they are so mired in fog. Player-coach disputes and dimming stardom and unfortunate quotations all seem to have popped up at the least opportune time. The Capitals leave town on Thursday for a road trip that may be both determinative for their season and the last for this incarnation of the roster.
I used the word nadir to describe Bruce Boudreau’s final game as coach, but I was wrong. We are steeped in it now. This moment right here is the Capitals during wartime, and everyone is watching. Failure is expected, and it’s expected to be huge.
But there’s a little glimmer of hope. Mike Green skated a full practice on Wednesday, his first since undergoing surgery for a hernia last month. He’ll be travelling with the team this weekend and might even play.
In the midst of all this melodrama and pathos, Mike Green is– as Steven Whyno described him– ”all smiles.”