The Washington Capitals have suffered from a litany of problems this season -- bouts of injury and inconsistency come to mind, among other things -- but as evidenced by their two games this weekend, there is one more that can be added to the running list.
During both a 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins Saturday and a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres Sunday, the blueprint for knocking the Capitals off their game was made readily available: continually pester them and force the issue physically, to the point of retaliation.
To those who follow the Capitals closely, this should come as no surprise.
They are -- and have been for several years -- a retaliatory team. They will push back only when pushed.
When Washington was at the height of its offensive powers, it intimidated opponents with its sheer skill and finesse. The Capitals, however, are not as talented as they used to be, and therefore opponents are less inclined to tread lightly in regards to their physical play.
For example, during Saturday's game, the Capitals found themselves in a 2-0 hole late in the first period after a pair of quick goals from the Bruins' Nathan Horton and David Krejci.
Boston's long-standing modus operandi has been to antagonize its opposition, feeding off the reaction of an unwilling victim like a schoolyard bully.
Instead of focusing on the most important task at hand -- attempting to come back -- Washington, which, for the most part, stayed above the fray during the teams' playoff series last spring, was suckered into frequent post-whistle scrums which ultimately led to three fights, including the first of Mike Ribeiro's NHL career and Matt Hendricks literally being cornered by both Shawn Thornton and Adam McQuaid.
The Bruins successfully distracted the Capitals from making a rally, which the latter could simply not afford considering their tenuous position in the playoff race.
On Sunday, it was the Sabres' Steve Ott, a notorious pest, who found his way under the Capitals' collective skin. He harrassed Nicklas Backstrom early in the third period, causing Alex Ovechkin to come to his defense and throwing the Capitals off once again.
Buffalo seemed to take control for a short period after that and scored a power-play goal to cut what once was a 4-1 deficit to 4-3.
Later, Ott engaged Steven Oleksy, asking him to fight before ultimately attempting to skate away. But Oleksy bit, and began to throw punches at Ott before being called for a roughing penalty.
Though Ott's actions may be indefensible -- Joey Crabb said after the game that Ott broke the unwritten and unspoken code of honor -- he did his job; he gave his team a late power play with a chance to tie the game while also taking out another member of Washington's already depleted defensive corps. (Tom Poti was forced to leave the game with an upper-body injury after a second-period cross-check from Ott.)
The Sabres didn't score on the power play, and Mathieu Perreault did shortly after, stopping the proverbial bleeding, but the focus after the game from both players and head coach Adam Oates was on Ott's antics just as much as it was on a much-needed victory.
The Capitals employ several players who could be loosely classfied as "tough guys": Hendricks, Oleksy, John Erskine and Aaron Volpatti.
Oates has made it clear that he does not want Hendricks and Erskine (when he is healthy) to fight as much as they might have been accustomed to, because of their rapidly increasing roles. The same can be said for Oleksy, who has been logging heavy minutes for a ravaged defense, while Volpatti has been in and out of the lineup.
That being said, there are very few players on the Capitals who will keep opponents' heads on a swivel and/or intimidate the opposition.
The Capitals are not a tough team -- which is not to say that they are "soft," a word filled with negative connotations -- but until they become one, they will continue to be pushed around without fear of reprisal.
After Saturday's loss, Karl Alzner was asked what Washington could have done to respond to Boston's interpretation of justice.
"Go after one of their guys," he told reporters. "I guess that’s the only thing you can do. We’re probably not going to do that because we’re not that kind of team."
Should they be, though?
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