The message after the game was loud and clear in the Capitals dressing room on Saturday afternoon.
It is time to wake up.
“It is like we are waiting for something. I don’t know. Waiting for something,” forward Mike Knuble said. “We are entering the toughest part of our season right here and it is going to be a real indicator if we are going to be a serious contender or not, quite honestly.”
The Caps were been dropped by the Kings 4-1 at Verizon Center in a second consecutive melancholy performance against a visiting Pacific Division foe. Four points crucial in the standings at this time of year left on the table with not so much a nimble from Washington. It was a perfect setup on Saturday. The Kings are on an rare 10-game road trip and D.C. was stop number five. The Capitals had three games off between the 2-0 loss to the Sharks on Tuesday to ruminate on their performance and come out with some pop against Los Angeles and sustain an effort over a weary team.
The opening minute started with a bang. Then the Caps went thud.
Alex Ovechkin kicked the afternoon off with one of his patented shoot-from-the-hip screaming wrist shots that beat backup Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Bernier over the shoulder at 1:06 of the first period. Ovie found the puck in the neutral zone, rushed down the left wing, pivoted into the slot and let it rip. It was a classic Ovie move yet this season he seems to have whiffed on those shots more often then he has hit them. The Capitals were off and sailing and it should have been a grind-them-down effort from there.
Yet, it was not.
“Ovie scores on the first shot of the game and we are off running. We didn’t follow it up with anything, that should have been a real spark for us,” Knuble said. “They just kind of took the game over after a while. You get what you deserve and we did last two games.”
The Kings tied it midway through the second period when Anze Kopitar followed up a rebound off the stick of Semyon Varlomov (four goals allowed, 24 saves). Then the Kings took control in the third, raining goals on Washington in quick succession as the team unraveled late in the game, yet again. Defensemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, both -3 on the night, were completely ineffective and often out of position. Green was a bee buzzing around the puck, Schultz a statue that could not make up for the space left open by Green. Los Angeles picked them apart.
The Caps had chances on the power play. Yet, they went 0-for-4 on the night and the string of embarrassments on the man-advantage continues well in to February.
“Right now we have practiced it more in the last month than we did in the last year. It is the same guys. The number one thing you have to do is win battles. Every loose puck, they got it. Every time there was a 1-on-1 situation, they got it,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said of the power play.
Washington ran away with the power play crown last season. This year they are operating at a 16.7 percent clip and have slid to 21st in the league. With Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Green on the the top unit, that is clearly unacceptable. And it is hurting the Capitals every game.
“There are no secrets here. No secrets here folks. This is the same group of guys who were 26 percent last year for the most part,” Boudreau said. Take away Tomas Fleischmann and Brendan Morrison which was the best power play in the league and gradually going as low as you can go. So, we will watch more video and do more work on this thing. We have changed everything around half a dozen times so, we’ll see. It is very perplexing.”
After the game ends the press runs from the press box on the sixth floor to the event floor to gather outside the dressing room and wait to get in to talk with the players. Normally, the wait is a little less than five minutes and reporters banter with each other, talking about scores of other games and generally making fun of each other. After the loss to the Kings, the wait turned out to be closer to 10 minutes than five. Everybody outside the dressing room knew that something was going on inside.
It was a players-only meeting brought upon by two games of lackluster effort and general frustration. It was telling that Knuble was one of the players to speak to associated media. The forward does not tend to be a major target for reporters after most games and he certainly did nothing on the ice Saturday to merit the scrum treatment. But, Knuble is a veteran and a leader and seen as a standup individual. It was him who delivered the harsh words to reporters that the Capitals probably need to hear at this point.
“We are coming to a key point in the season and we need to make sure that we are all aware of that,” Knuble said. “It is time to throw the switch to the playoffs,” Knuble said. “We have got to be playing well and it is like we are just sloughing along … If we are going to come out and play well on this trip and make the commitment to play well. We have our work cut out for us and decide if we are serious or not.
“I don’t know what we are waiting for every night. We have a lot to play for, as players, as individuals as a team. There is a lot, every game is important, you can’t wait and say that other games aren’t important, that points don’t count, points don’t matter. Those are huge points that were left on the table the last two games. Four points where we should have scraped out at least two. If you have to lose in an overtime or a shootout, at least two.”
“I don’t know if we don’t feel threatened or watching the standings and are locked into a certain spot. I don’t know, there is not a lot of urgency right now and we have to find it because this road trip coming up now is really … it could be great or or it could be embarrassing,” Knuble said.