Picking Splinters: Capital Losses

This is what a Stanley Cup contender looks like? Seriously?

The Washington Capitals have been nothing short of a disaster lately, with a 7-0 skunking by the New York Rangers extending a losing streak to six games through Tuesday. At the moment, that skid is tied with the New York Islanders’ as the worst in the NHL. Stars aren’t scoring, stoppers have sprung leaks and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau may be about to lose his mind.

What the heck happened?

At the start of the month, Washington’s record stood at 18-6-1 and the appeared to be on cruise control for another Southeast Division title and a strong bet to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs for a second straight season. Then the bottom fell out.

The first two losses were innocent enough, 2-1 on the road in Dallas and 3-1 against a surging Atlanta Thrashers team. But the loss to the Maple Leafs really stung. The Caps squandered a 4-1 lead in the third period of that game in a performance that probably would have gone down as the season’s worst … if not for that 7-0 shellacking in New York on Sunday.

During the skid Boudreau even went so far as to call out stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin – also known as the core of the Caps’ franchise – for a lack of effort. And perhaps that’s the most surprising aspect of all this craziness.

While Ovechkin only has two goals in his last 13 games, he’s experienced slumps before. But a lack of effort? Effort is his thing. He’s marketed himself as the player that brings the action every night, whether it’s a big hit or a big shot, the league has come to expect the Great Eight to be one of the most dynamic players game in and game out. But during this streak he’s look, frankly, pedestrian.

His moves have been predictable – skate in along the left boards, cut to the middle at the top of the circles and loose a wrister while using the defensemen as a screen, repeat – and less-than-elite teams have bottled him up far too easily. What happened to the player who combined the speed of Russian Rocket Pavel Bure with the slap shot of Bobby Hull?

What has been particularly galling to Caps fans is that while their star has struggled, Sidney Crosby has been producing at a super-human pace. Entering Wednesday’s game, Crosby had a 19-game point streak intact and has racked up goals and assists at nearly a two-points-per game clip. Currently the contrast is the starkest it’s ever been between the two stars who have taken turns as 1 and 1A in the NHL’s best-player debate. The league’s best? Crosby. Hands down.

And that’s the thing that’s most surprising when Boudreau questioned Ovechkin’s effort. If Ovechkin and Crosby are such big rivals, how does the Canadian center’s success not fuel Ovechkin’s motor?

In the past few seasons, Sidney Crosby has won the Stanley Cup, won the goal-scoring title (a title he took from Ovechkin) and won an Olympic gold medal … oh, and he humiliated Ovechkin’s Russian team in the process. Meanwhile the Caps are still looking for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup and now look like a marginal playoff team at best. How does that not absolutely enrage Ovechkin?

Maybe it has. Maybe, when Ovechkin dropped the gloves on the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky on Sunday, he’d had enough. Maybe now he’s going to turn it around and the Caps will follow suit. They had better do so soon.

There are a lot of folks in Washington with Jan. 1 circled on their calendars, and it’s not because of the new year. That day Ovechkin and his teammates take the outdoor ice at Heinz Field in the NHL’s Winter Classic … against Sidney Crosby and the hated Penguins. If the Caps can’t rebound by then, Ovechkin risks losing yet another high-profile match to his rival.

If the Caps lose the Winter Classic, if the Caps continue to swoon and squander another shot at the Cup this Spring, well, then the seemingly timeless debate between Crosby and Ovechkin will most likely have a definitive answer. And it won’t be one that Washington fans will like.


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