The Washington Capitals have hit rock bottom.
At 2-8-1 entering Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers, the Capitals are looking up at the rest of the NHL as the league's worst team. They are the only team yet to win on the road and not to score at least four goals in a game. They allow a league-leading 3.73 goals against per game and have allowed a league-worst 41 goals against in just 11 games. Their 70.6 percent "success" rate on the penalty kill is 27th. Alex Ovechkin hasn't scored an even-strength goal this season, the second-longest drought of his career. They are off to the fourth-worst start in the franchise's 38-year history just one year after getting off to one of its best, winning eight of their first 10.
The beauty of hitting rock bottom, however, is that you have nowhere to go but up. The Capitals know that something must change. Fortunately, in these situations, there are steps -- 12 of them -- that can serve as a road map to recovery.
The first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. To the Capitals' credit, they have done that by openly questioning their mental fortitude last week. Goaltender Braden Holtby said after last Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Penguins that the Capitals' "mental game right now isn’t strong enough,” which was followed by forward Troy Brouwer saying that their "minds weren't in it" and defenseman Karl Alzner adding that they are "weak mentally" after Thursday's 5-2 loss to the Penguins. By accepting the truth of their situation, the healing can begin.
Now the Caps must come to believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to respectability. For them, that power is Adam Oates' system. Washington has slowly but surely adjusted to its coach's teachings and it must rely on its faith in those teachings and each other instead of abandoning both in troubled times.
"I think it’s just important to stick with the system," forward Eric Fehr said. "Our system is meant for all five players to be on the same page and if we have two or three players off it’s not gonna work. So it’s just important that we stay with it and play as a team."
Real recovery begins when a decision is made to let go of living a toxic life. Friday, the team collectively called a players-only meeting to discuss their sluggish start.
"We had a meeting and we're all pretty positive now," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We just talked everything out, get everything out in the open we think is wrong and why we've been getting down after goals scored against, this and that, and what it's gonna take to win and what we think our record needs to be, how many games we need to win, all that kind of stuff. We just got it all out there so it's no secret to everybody and we're well aware of what we've backed ourselves into. Everyone knows now and hopefully that's the last of it."
At this point, the Capitals must look deep within themselves and discover their deficiencies. General manager George McPhee addressed his team's biggest problems Friday.
"The issue with our club right now, in my mind, is all these penalties that we’re taking," he said. "It’s too much.
"We’re playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches," McPhee continued, adding that he does indeed believe that the Capitals are a "fragile" team right now. "No system, no coach, no team can survive that. We’ve given up the most shorthanded goals in the league and for good reason: we’re taking too many. It’s too hard on the goaltenders and it’s too hard on the team."
Once the soul searching is complete, this step provides the greatest opportunity for growth. Now that Washington has identified the issues, it must openly admit them.
"I think one of our major problems is that when we get scored on, we get down on ourselves," forward Matt Hendricks said. "That feeling of ‘Here we go again’ is starting to sink in and we can’t allow that. Obviously when we’re getting put on the penalty kill and they’re scoring, it makes sense that it would lead to that. But I think it’s our mental game right now. We need to be stronger, realize we’re a good hockey team in here and that we can come out and win hockey games even if we’re behind by a goal or two."
In order to attain victory, it is essential that the Capitals develop an unwavering focus on their goal, which at this point is simply to win.
"There’s a lot of frustration in here right now," Hendricks said. "Until we work our way out of it’s going to keep sinking in. We need changes. We need to right the ship."
One must have humility to move forward. The Capitals must see themselves as they truly are: a franchise in flux that has failed to live up to expectations for several years. Any delusions of grandeur at this point will only serve to derail any sort of momentum that Washington can hope to find as the season progresses.
As individuals, the Capitals must all recognize what their respective role is on the team and display a willingness to perfect it.
"Well, you got to challenge yourself first," forward Jason Chimera said. "Everybody’s got to expect a little more of themselves. And it starts with me. I can’t speak for anyone else. I got to lead a little more and score a little more, chip in and do that little extra to get guys going.So you got to challenge yourself. I can’t speak for anyone else. I got to do better myself and I think you got to start with that. You got to look at yourself in the mirror."
This is about reconciling the past in order to reclaim the future, which was once bright. Mistakes have been made throughout the season -- from undisciplined play to soft goals -- but a concerted effort to move past them is necessary in order for the Capitals to once again achieve the level of success that they have grown accustomed to.
This is simply about reinforcing the steps already taken through honest assessment and hard work. Good practice habits and consistent 60-minute performances will be key.
Making amends will come through translating the above steps into tangible results. As Brouwer said last week, "there are no moral victories."
“It seems like lately we lose, [but] ‘well, we’ve done good things,'" forward Mathieu Perreault added. "When we lose, play good or not, it’s not acceptable. I think that’s the mentality we should get. We’ve got to win every single game, no matter what.”
And that's when the season could get back on track. Washington has not reached this step yet and won't until it sees a breakthrough on the ice. Once all of the above steps have been mastered, the Capitals will have finally recovered.
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