ARLINGTON — The Capitals met as a group, the doors shut to the outside world. Not even the coaches were invited after an embarrassing 8-5 loss in Chicago on Sunday.
You could call it a “meeting” as several players did. “A chat” was the word used by defenseman Matt Niskanen. On Monday the coaches were back for more talk and more video. Owners of the NHL’s longest current losing streak at five games, everyone has the same goal: How to get back on track as fast as possible.
“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page. And then the same sort of thing with the coaching staff and the players. Go over some stuff, get on the same page, refocus, reshuffle the deck a little bit and get back at it.”
Maybe they didn’t blister the paint off the walls in the locker room at United Center on Sunday, but these aren’t exactly genteel get-togethers, either. Video doesn’t lie and Washington hasn’t been near good enough during an 0-4-1 stretch that has it technically in third place in the Metropolitan Division and just one point ahead of fourth. That’s not a spot the defending Stanley Cup champs expect to be.
Immediate comparison will be made to the infamous blistering former coach Barry Trotz gave his players after back-to-back blowout losses in games at Nashville and Colorado left them at 10-9-1 just 20 games into the 2017-18 season.
The Capitals returned home and responded by winning 10 of their next 13 games. But these things are rarely linear. Despite spending all of January in first place in the Metro last year, by March players and coaches were right back in the meeting room. That time it was to overhaul its defensive system after the team sleepwalked through a 9-9-4 stretch from Jan. 18 to March 8.
“In that discussion last year, there was some major changes being made and that stuff is already in place,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “Now it's just about players doing their job, executing their responsibilities within that system and being better.”
Coaches can hold players accountable by reducing roles, changing lines or scratching them entirely. Reirden has done all of that, including putting center Evgeny Kuznetsov on the third line in Sunday’s loss. In dire circumstances, coaches can go nuclear as Trotz memorably did last season. That can get a team’s attention immediately - provided the tactic is not used too often.
But it’s the players themselves who ultimately demand the most from each other when things go wrong. Washington has a veteran locker room. These players have won a Stanley Cup together. No one was willing to speak on the record about what was said in the players’ meeting or who did most of the talking. But it’s not hard to figure out, either.
Eight players (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Braden Holtby, Matt Niskanen) have nine years or more of NHL experience. Wilson, Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov have all played at least six years each for Washington. It’s an experienced roster that has been together, won together, lost together and knows its own strengths and weaknesses.
“I think we’re a pretty loose group. That’s our nature. It works for us,” Niskanen said. “I don’t think we can get too uptight, but I think we’ll have a real determined, focused effort here the next couple nights. The guys recognize the situation that we’re in, accept it, take responsibility for it and work to try to change it.”
That rebound will have to come on back-to-back games with San Jose at home tonight (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) and on Tuesday at Toronto. Both of those teams have Stanley Cup hopes and both are struggling, too.
The Sharks (28-16-7, 63 points) have lost three games in a row, but remain in second place in the Pacific Division. The Maple Leafs (29-17-2, 60 points) have lost two in a row and seven of 10. They are in second place in the Atlantic Division.
These are all teams who could use the upcoming All-Star break and bye week to recharge. Washington will not practice again as a full group until 2 p.m. on Jan. 31. Holtby and Carlson will have a shorter rest period because they are going to San Jose on Thursday for NHL All-Star weekend, but even they will get a few days off to recharge.
That escape from the mental anguish of a losing streak can help. But multiple Caps players said Monday that without at least one win it’s almost worthless. They’ll just be sitting on a beach thinking about what’s gone wrong and focusing on how to fix it. They need a win – and the lessons of last season can provide a blueprint.
"The main thing is we've got to remember, be honest with ourselves for the last two years or so, that things haven't come easy,” Holtby said. “That's something that can be lost in the fact of winning. Because things weren't easy last year. We had to grind our way through to get where we were, and that's going to be what we have to do this year.”
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