Intensity. Heart. Hustle. All different names for that intangible characteristic an athlete demonstrates when he or she raises their game to the next level. In any sport, talent and high skill can only take a player or team so far. Excellent skill paired with maximum effort, however, can lead to greatness, or even championships. Somebody should remind the Washington Capitals. The Caps, sporting a pedestrian 4-7-2 record over the last month, have too often looked slower, sloppier, and less interested than their opponents.
Tuesday night in Columbus, Washington struggled for much of the game. Yes, the Blue Jackets played a solid, defensive, counter punching game, but the Caps failed to assert themselves. Washington is good enough to bend other teams to their will, not the other way around. No team with the firepower the Capitals possess should be held to 7 shots on goal through two periods, as Washington was Tuesday. The Columbus matchup marked the first game of huge road trip, against a division opponent, amid tight point races in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. Yet, with so much at stake, the Caps still managed to sloppily sleepwalk through most of the game. As Brooks Orpik told the Washington Post, “We just got outplayed the whole night.” Why? The Blue Jackets are not markedly better. Columbus out-hustled and out-worked the Caps.
Brooks Orpik: “We just got outplayed the whole night. It was nothing more than that to be honest with you.”
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) February 13, 2019
Yes, despite all their “flaws”, Washington is in second place in the Metro Division. Fan frustration is born of the fact that most of the team’s flaws are self-inflicted wounds. Better back-checking cuts down on odd-man rushes and poor defensive spacing. Keeping legs churning to skate with an opponent cuts down on lazy stick penalties. Winning more board battles cuts down opponents’ offensive zone time on the power play. Getting the puck deep and establishing a grinding forecheck leads to more quality scoring chances. Each of these are hustle plays. Each of these are correctable. It is up to the players to provide the necessary effort.
It could be argued that a coach is responsible for pushing the right motivational buttons. Recently, Nova Caps explored whether Todd Reirden was the right coach for the task. Unfortunately, not playing up to full potential is a hallmark of the Ovechkin-Backstrom era. Neither Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, nor Barry Trotz, for the better part of four years, could crack the secret code to extract greatness from a very good team. How many times over the last decade have Capitals fans begged the boys in red to play a full sixty-minute game? Too often, the Caps play passively, not waking up until late in the game only to watch a furious rally fall short. Their talent carries them against lesser teams, but talent alone can not bail them out against other good teams.
Last season’s marvelous Cup run was actually the exception. For whatever reason, maybe it was coaching, maybe it was maturity, the players finally figured out combining remarkable talent and extraordinary effort can make a team unbeatable. The ability to replicate that magic formula will determine how far the team advances this Spring. Conventional wisdom says this recent swoon is emblematic of the winter doldrums the Caps stumble through every season before gearing up for the playoffs. It is easy to assume now that the players know what it takes to lift the Stanley Cup, they will be ready to go when the bell rings. If the players can truly “flip the switch”, tonight’s Valentine’s Day showdown in San Jose would be an ideal time to show some heart. Otherwise, the spot on the control panel Caps fans may be reaching for is the panic button.
By Bryan Hailey