As they prepared for their Super Bowl Sunday matinee against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals were relishing the opportunity to face their fiercest rival. Defenseman Karl Alzner called it a "big test," one that the Capitals "need right now" after losing six of their first eight games; Forward Jason Chimera said that “If you don’t get up for these games, there’s something wrong.”
But after Pittsburgh dominated Washington in a 6-3 victory Sunday, there seems to be something wrong. It's not an issue of effort -- which plagued the Capitals during the first week of the season -- or the growing pains that have come with learning head coach Adam Oates' style of play.
At least, they weren't Sunday.
Instead, the Capitals were simply outplayed by a more talented Penguins team that exposed arguably their biggest weakness, not just this season, but in recent seasons: a lack of mental toughness.
"I think the biggest thing is just our mental game right now isn't strong enough," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who has now allowed 18 goals in four starts. "We're playing a good team game. It's just those little breakdowns. Those are the little things that we have to prepare for before the game that are huge in winning games.”
After Pittsburgh entered the first intermission with a hard-fought 2-1 lead, Washington tied the game at 2-2 when John Carlson's harmless dump-in took a strange bounce off the glass and somehow trickled into the Penguins' net while goaltender Tomas Vokoun waited for the puck behind it.
The Penguins, however, were not rattled by Carlson's physics-defying goal, and less than four minutes later, they held a 4-2 lead after scoring twice in 37 seconds.
"I really like our team responding to that bad bounce that happened on the wall," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. "Now it's 2-2 -- and our team responded well with the penalty kill and getting some goals."
The same can't be said for the Capitals, who only mustered one shot on goal in the final 7:33 that remained in the second period after the Penguins' flurry.
As a result, the energy emanating from the ice at the beginning of the game seemed to disappear completely as Washington abandoned their game plan and began to improvise in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force offense and recapture momentum.
"I think we've been in positions to win games a lot of nights and let it slip," forward Troy Brouwer said. "Tonight was no different, 2-2 midway through the second period, we were in a good spot to win, we were having good opportunities, good zone time. And then all of a sudden, we get scored on twice. It kind of deflated us and we weren’t able to recover."
When briefed on his players' comments, Oates disagreed, believing that Washington "played a good hockey game," but issues involving mental fortitude predate his arrival.
Perhaps the most memorable scene from HBO's "24/7" miniseries leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins was a profanity-laced tirade delivered by former head coach Bruce Boudreau where he questioned his team's response to adversity and chastised them for "looking like [they] feel sorry for themselves." As recently as last week, Alzner admitted that feelings of self-doubt have continued to linger on the bench this season, particularly during Washington's 0-3-0 start.
Much has been made about the drastic changes that the Capitals have gone through behind the bench and on the ice within the past 14+ months, but one thing has unfortunately endured: their lack of true grit in the face of adversity, which continues to hinder their progress.
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