At this point last season, the Washington Capitals were doing what the Washington Capitals had done under coach Bruce Boudreau's tutelage: Dominating opponents offensively in the regular season and running away with the Southeast Division, with an 11-point spread between themselves and the Atlanta Thrashers.
This season, the Capitals can't seem to generate a fraction of that offense during what is, statistically, the worst stretch of hockey they've played under Boudreau; and a division whose champion was a foregone conclusion according to preseason prognostications suddenly finds the Capitals three points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and four in front of the Thrash.
"It's unfamiliar territory," said Boudreau after last night's humbling 7-0 loss at the New York Rangers. "We have a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves."
Whenever the Capitals start struggling, whether it's in the regular season or the playoffs, observers are quick to place Boudreau's substantial neck on the chopping block. It's hard to fathom his removal from behind the bench when you consider the team's regular-season record, populist style of play and his own popularity within the organization. But better coaches haven't survived mammoth tailspins before, and Boudreau seems at least partially cognizant of that.
"We have to find a way out of this ... before it's too late," he said last night.
So why are the Capitals in a six-game losing streak in which they've been outscored 22-6? Glad you asked.
Here are five reasons why the Washington Capitals are in the unfamiliar territory of Loserville right now:
1. Injuries and Flu
An excuse? Perhaps, but also a reality. From CSN Washington:
Some strain of the flu has swept through the Washington dressing room, forcing victims to miss practices and games or at least play at less than optimal health. The Capitals were satisfied with the effort Saturday night, but falling behind early in a game 24 hours later proved to be a nightmare.
Defenseman Mike Green(notes) has missed the last two games with the flu. Nicklas Backstrom(notes) has also been ill, posting three points and an uncharacteristic minus-6 in his last four games. Goalie Michal Neuvirth(notes) was unavailable against the Rangers due to illness. And defenseman Jeff Schultz(notes), who has become a vital member of their blueline, is out until 2011 with a broken thumb. The Capitals are far from 100-percent ... but that's also far from being the sole reason for their struggle.
2. Power Play Outage
The Capitals are 3-for-26 on the power play in their 6-game slump, with the most egregious power outage occurring in a 0-for-8 effort against the Florida Panthers that saw Washington have 5 power-play chances in the first period.
The loss of Green is a key, but it's the infection of fancy-pants-ism that has occasionally plagued this unit under Boudreau that's the real culprit. Also, the Capitals are earning slightly fewer power plays (3.6 per game) than last season (3.8). They way it's worked, that might actually be a good thing.
3. George McPhee May Have Pulled the Wrong Trigger
There's not question that the Capitals needed a veteran defensive defenseman this season, and Scott Hannan(notes) may still prove to be that guy even if he's struggled since joining the team on Nov. 30 in a trade for Tomas Fleischmann(notes).
But the playoffs last season also exposed a lack of a true second-line center for Washington, and that hole's been glaring in December against while the team struggles offensively. The Merry-Go-Round of internal fixes aren't working; no wonder rumblings of a Nik Antropov-type coming to D.C. have started.
4. Alex Semin Has Become the Other Alex Semin Again.
Watching Alex Semin for most of the season was watching a player that was looking as complete, lethal and focused as any in the League. But lately, he's gone back to being Alex Semin, according to Japers' Rink:
Alexander Semin(notes) finds himself mired in a bit of a slump, which is fine and certainly not news considering the wealth of teammates struggling around him. What is not fine is the fact that he's gone back to the selfish, lazy play that we thought had gone by the wayside. He continues a stretch of really poor play with a bad pinch on the power play that led directly to the shorthanded goal, killing any momentum the Caps might have had.
This is Alex Semin: Most talented scorer in hockey one week, "selfish, lazy play" the next. And that's why you give certain players one-year deals and others 12 years.
5. They're Not a Mentally Tough Hockey Team
Boudreau spoke volumes last night:
"It was going OK until the first goal. In the second period ... I'm trying to find the right words here ... we didn't get a save. When you've lost six in a row, you get behind and you get deflated," he said. "That's where you have to have resolve. To be defiant. To not let it happen."
But the Capitals aren't defiant. They don't have resolve. This has been proven year after year in the postseason when lesser lights like the Rangers and the Canadiens were able to push the Capitals to the brink or, in the Habs' case, topple them over the cliff. It's been proven when key contributors during the regular-season suddenly disappear in the postseason, like a program in TRON getting sliced in half by a laser disc. (IMAX, Friday night, can't wait.)
James O'Brien of NBC thinks this stretch is a character-building moment for the Capitals, to which we'd ask: How much adversity does one team need before it's apparent that it hasn't learned its lessons yet? The playoff letdowns are like a graduate level course in humility; this December is like freshman year stuff.
(By the way, the notion that a "playoff push" will be more beneficial than the usual cruise control to the playoffs for Washington is unfounded. Their break-neck final weeks to make the 2008 postseason resulted in a first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. It's a notion that looks great in theory but has yet to be tested; like the claim that extra rest would do Marty Brodeur good in 2009 before he gave up 17 goals in 7 games to Carolina.)
Of course, this team isn't in the muck yet. Boudreau isn't on the chopping block ... yet. They have a light week to figure this out and then have the Pittsburgh Penguins coming to town next week. As Alex Ovechkin(notes) said after the Rangers' loss: "I think when we win one game, everyone's going to forget this."
The question is when that win's going to happen.