Commentary

After strong start, Capitals trying to avoid catastrophic slump

Updated: February 7, 2008, 6:27 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Which team will be this season's surprise story? ESPN.com is picking the Washington Capitals and Scott Burnside will chronicle the team's travels throughout the season.

There is great power in being a Cinderella team.

Unencumbered by expectation, teams that defy predictions, even common sense, by winning when they aren't supposed to, are imbued with a titanic sense of self-assuredness. It doesn't always last, but while it does, the feeling of invincibility is intoxicating and reaffirming for players, coaches and fans.

Can the Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders maintain their surprisingly high level of play for an entire season? Can they do it even until the All-Star break?

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
James Guillory/US PresswireSo far, Alexander Ovechkin has done his part for the Caps, posting 12 goals and eight assists in his first 18 games.

Who knows?

What is certain, though, for every feel-good story that grabs headlines, even if only for a short while, there is another team that believed it, too, and had the Cinderella goods, only to find it still wore the garments of the scullery maid.

For teams like the Washington Capitals, that feeling of disappointment, even disbelief, is hard to fend off.

The Caps were one of those teams that began the season with that kind of iron-clad belief they were ready, even if the rest of the league didn't believe it.

Owner Ted Leonsis told fans emphatically, "The rebuild is over!"

National publications, including this one, tagged the Caps as a dark horse, a team capable of flying under the radar while accomplishing much.

A team can dream. Remember?

And for three games to open the season, the Capitals justified the optimism that permeated the dressing room during training camp. They looked like a well-oiled machine going 3-0 out of the gate. They built a reputation as a hard-working team over the past two seasons under coach Glen Hanlon. This season, the hard work was being augmented by offensive zip provided by newcomers Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, rookie Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Tom Poti.

"It was exciting," veteran netminder Olaf Kolzig recently told ESPN.com of the team's start.

And then -- poof! -- the Caps' ornate horse-drawn carriage disappeared. They were wracked by injuries. Poti suffered a groin injury that has cost him six games. Alexander Semin has played in only four games because of ankle issues. Captain Chris Clark, the heart and soul of this team, who scored an improbable 30 goals last season, took an Alexander Ovechkin slap shot to the ear, opening a cut that essentially tore part of his ear off and required 80 stitches to repair. How do you even find room to put 80 stitches on a human ear? No one knows when Clark might return to the lineup.

The injuries are calamitous, but the NHL is rife with stories about the impact of these kinds of injuries. Ask the Anaheim Ducks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres how injuries have made life difficult through the first quarter of the schedule. But good teams work through these stretches. They find ways not to let a slump or a slide become a way of life. They find ways to not get buried.

"After two years of losing here, we're still learning how to win," Kolzig said. "It's been a bit of a roller coaster ride. We just can't find the back of the net."

That's true. After their 3-0 start, the Caps went 2-9 over their next 11 games. In those nine losses, they scored 14 goals.

Poti, Semin and Clark represent 78 goals out of the lineup from last season. Ovechkin is on a torrid pace with 10 goals in 16 games, so he's doing his part; so is Nylander, who is on a point-a-game pace. So is it too much to ask guys like Matt Pettinger and Tomas Fleischmann to pick up the slack?

"No, it's not asking too much," Hanlon said. "If you're going to talk about being a winning team, these are the things that have to happen. The rest of the group has got to start scoring some goals.

"Obviously, it's a silly comment, but no one's going to be sorry when we're losing. They're all going to gang up on us."

The injuries have forced players into unfamiliar roles. Poti, who returned to action last week in Atlanta, averages about 25 minutes a night and that ice time has been doled out to players "who can't handle it," Hanlon said.

"What it is right now, we're making little mistakes that are turning into catastrophic results," Kolzig said.

When the team did not spend money on the free-agent market over the past two seasons, it relied on home-grown players to forge an identity as a hard-working group that might not win, but wouldn't lay down.

"And we hung our hat on that," Kolzig said.

This season, with the identity changing, with the addition of Kozlov, Nylander, Poti and Backstrom, "you take the losses harder. You grip the stick a little more tightly," Kolzig said.

Players and coaches acknowledge the expectations and early success have made this losing stretch more difficult.

"Yeah, I think the pressure [is] there, they feel that. I think the biggest thing is it just takes some courage and guts not to be wallowing in self-pity and self-doubt. It takes men to play in this game," Hanlon said. "The hard part for us, I honestly believe we've played a lot better than we have [shown]."

"For us, it's just managing our game and not becoming discouraged when things don't go our way," Kolzig added. "We're still in the transition from losing to being a really good hockey team."

The past week provided a glimpse into that transition. When the Caps dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to Atlanta on Nov. 6, it dropped them into last place in the Eastern Conference. Yet, they fought back from a 1-0 deficit and got a point. Two nights later, they were in Ottawa against a Senators team that was looking to add to a team-record eight-game winning streak. There had been chatter in the media about whether the Senators could put together a season like the Montreal Canadiens did in the mid-1970s, when regular-season losses could be counted on one hand. The Caps dominated the Sens, winning 4-1.

Kozlov chipped in a goal and two assists. Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft, got his first NHL goal. All of a sudden, the Caps entered play this week 14th in the East, but just two points out of eighth place.

Hanlon told reporters after the Ottawa game the Caps hadn't played any harder, but just got rewarded. Whether this week marks a return to the kind of successes the Caps knew coming out of the gate will only be revealed in time. What seems pretty certain is that you don't get many of these slides and still get an invitation to the playoff ball.

A season ago, the Caps hung tough until early in the New Year and then faded, finishing 14th in the conference. Another slide this season and their fate will likely be the same.

All the team is focusing on is getting back to .500, defenseman Brian Pothier said. For many players on this team, the past two seasons have been on-the-job training. There were mistakes, but they were to be expected. They were the price of learning.

"Now, it's a matter of having to grow up with the expectations," Pothier said. "Every time we're in a tough spot, we're growing as a team. At the same time, I think we need to learn those lessons pretty quickly."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.