Capitals' losses piling up at poor time

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Only two days ahead of the premiere of HBO's hockey reality series, there are two riveting storylines. There is Sidney Crosby's(notes) 18-game scoring streak and the Pittsburgh Penguins' 12-game winning streak. Then there is this: What the heck is wrong with the Washington Capitals?

Why can't Alex Ovechkin(notes) score? Is coach Bruce Boudreau feeling the heat? Why can't the Caps win a game? Is this a little slump that will make them stronger for a big Stanley Cup run, or are these guys still not ready for prime time?

It remains to be seen how much hard-core hockey insight we'll get from "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic," a four-part, all-access series that debuts Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET and leads up to the teams' meeting Jan. 1 in the NHL's annual outdoor game. But the obvious contrast is between the Pens' success and the Caps' struggles, and you wonder if the cameras no longer will capture the Capitals' happy-go-lucky personality.

Ovechkin has only two goals in his past 14 games. The Capitals have lost six straight. Their last loss was their worst – a 7-0 stinker Sunday night against the New York Rangers. Four times in the past month, the Caps have failed to score, and three of the shutouts were blowouts. They suffered 5-0 losses Nov. 22 to the New Jersey Devils and Nov. 19 to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Maybe it's just coincidence. Maybe it's just good timing for Crosby and the Penguins, bad timing for Ovechkin and the Capitals. It is only the regular season – and the first half of the regular season at that – and the Caps have been hit by a flu bug. But HBO's cameras change the dynamic, and this only reinforces the perception that one group raises its game under the bright lights while the other fades.

"I think we just have to relax," Ovechkin told reporters Sunday night in New York. "I know it is huge pressure for us right now."

The Capitals' biggest problem right now might be their biggest goal. They have reached the point as a team where their performance will be measured by one thing – whether they finally win the franchise's first Stanley Cup – and they can't begin their pursuit for four more months. As early as the preseason, the Capitals had a let's-get-this-over-with feeling about the regular season.

"Yeah, I wish playoffs started right away," defenseman Mike Green(notes) said in September. "But it's always good. It takes almost 82 games to prepare yourself as a team to get ready for playoffs."

Asked then how he would keep the Capitals focused through 82 games, Boudreau said: "Listen, I'm trying to keep them focused for tomorrow. To me, it's a day-to-day thing. Every day's a new day, and I've got to think of ways to do new things."

There is already some talk about Boudreau's job security, and recent history doesn't help him. Dan Bylsma took over the slumping Penguins in February 2009 and led them to a Cup victory. Peter Laviolette took over the slumping Philadelphia Flyers in December 2009 and led them to the Cup final. Ken Hitchcock, a veteran coach who has won a Cup, is available.

But go back a bit further in history. The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings won 62 games, an NHL record, and posted 131 points, one short of the record set by the great '76-77 Montreal Canadiens, only to lose to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals. The Wings became known as a great regular-season team that choked in the playoffs. Then they posted only 38 wins and 94 points in '96-97 – and finally won the Cup. They have won three more since.

That's not to say underachievement in the regular season equals playoff success. That's just to say it doesn't necessarily matter in the end, just as it doesn't necessarily matter the other way around. As Ovechkin said in September: "It doesn't matter how good you play in the season. The playoffs, it's much different hockey and much different situation."

The Caps have cruised through the regular season; they won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team in 2009-10 with 121 points. They have cruised early in playoff series, too; they took a 2-0 lead over the Penguins in '09 and a 3-1 lead over the Canadiens last season, only to blow them both.

They have so much talent that the game can become easy. They have scored five or more goals eight times this season, and they were 18-6-2 before this slump. But when it gets hard, when teams clamp down, when the goals dry up, their talent isn't enough. "When things didn't go our way in the playoffs, it got frustrating for us and we didn't know how to deal with it," Green said in September.

Maybe they'll learn how to deal with it now. When opponents pull ahead, the Capitals can't crumble mentally and let things get out of hand. When opponents clog lanes and block shots, the Capitals have to move the puck better and do the things that don't take talent – the things coaches preach, especially in the playoffs. They have to make simple plays. They have to go to the net. They have to play defense. They have to show some fight.

Perhaps this was a good sign. Ovechkin – who has won the Hart Trophy twice as the NHL's most valuable player, but whose heart is often questioned – fought for only the second time in his career Sunday night when he squared off with the Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky(notes). Crosby fought for only the fifth time in his career Nov. 3 when he scrapped with the Dallas Stars' Matt Niskanen(notes), and many think that helped the Penguins snap out of their own early-season funk. (Don't dismiss one as frustration and hail the other as leadership.)

The Capitals will snap out of this. As bad as it seems, Ovechkin is still tied for fourth in the NHL in scoring with 36 points. The Caps still lead the Southeast Division with 39 points, third-most in the East. But we'll have to see how this plays out in the big picture – and whether an HBO audience will enjoy the reality series enough to return for the real series in the spring.

"You're going to get to know these guys in the shows," Boudreau said in an HBO trailer, "and whether you're interested in hockey or not, you're going to want to see if they follow through."

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