- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

After two games of flirting with competence, the Washington Capitals jumped back on the teeter-totter Tuesday night. The Philadelphia Flyers, flattened by the Caps on their home ice back in October, returned the favor at Verizon Center, 5-1. By the time Caps finally scored, Michal Neuvirth had replaced Tomas Vokoun in the net and doubt had replaced the temporary relief of back-to-back victories.

It was Dale Hunter’s first chance to see his team play the kind of game that got Bruce Boudreau fired. The goaltending was shaky, his players didn’t do a very good job of controlling the traffic in the crease (three Philly goals came on deflections) and there was little push-back as they started to fall behind. No, it was a stinker pretty much from beginning to end, the kind the Caps have specialized in this season.

In many ways, it was Hunter’s first real welcome-home moment. This is the club you’ve been handed, Dale, a club that seems to change identity almost from night to night — even from shift to shift.

“Until you eliminate the ups and downs, you’re just going to bounce around — win a couple, lose a couple,” Mike Knuble said after practice Wednesday at Kettler Iceplex. “You’re not going to gain ground on somebody or anything like that. It’s maddening to the players. Penalty-killing isn’t good one night, power play lets you down the next night, goaltending is struggling another night.”

Some inconsistency was to be expected, of course. Midseason coaching changes rarely are a breeze. And Hunter’s style of play — forechecking, backchecking, everything but Unlimited Free Checking — is a bit of a departure from Boudreau‘s. The question is whether the Caps can become that type of mature, responsible team; if not, then general manager George McPhee will have to find some other players to become that type of mature, responsible team, hopefully sooner than later.

In fact, you wonder whether the Capitals and the Anaheim Ducks, the club Boudreau has taken over, might eventually be swapping some bodies. There are undoubtedly a few guys on the Washington roster that Boudreau wouldn’t mind having in Anaheim, and maybe McPhee would be willing to send him some if he could get a reasonable return (read: players who are more in the Hunter mold). This much is certain: The Caps can’t go on like this much longer, yo-yoing back and forth between The Team They Should Be and The Team They Too Often Are.

As Knuble put it: “As a group, I think we’re talented enough and deep enough so that, over the course of time, we’ll be fine. It’s just that you don’t want to wait too long. You want to get things going in the right direction. Because you can’t just start playing in February. We’ve got to start heading in that direction now.”

It’s easy to blame the Capitals‘ struggles, at least in part, on the absence of Mike Green, their offensive-minded defenseman. With him, they’re 8-0 this season. Without him, they’re a New York Islanders-esque 7-13-1.

But they did just fine at the end of last season when Greenie was recovering from a concussion, winning 16 of their final 20 to steal the first seed in the East. Besides, aren’t the Caps supposed to be deeper this year, more resistant to injuries and occasional fluctuations in performance?

Better to focus on the players who are in uniform and aren’t living up to expectations. And there’s no bigger elephant in the room than Alex Ovechkin, who continues to drag along with nine goals, 21 points and a minus-10 rating through 29 games. (Or to look at it another way: Ovie has just nine more goals than his wax figure at Madame Tussauds.)

In an ideal world, the captain and Face of the Franchise would shift into higher gear when a new coach comes in - to ease the transition and, well, just be a leader. But it appears more and more that Ovechkin doesn’t have that gear anymore, the gear that enabled him to score 65 goals one season and 50-plus two others.

Indeed, it’s probably unrealistic to think Ovechkin is going to be as productive in his second 500 games as he was in his first 500 (309 goals) — even if he is just 26. Consider: Wayne Gretzky scored 448 goals in his first 500 games; in the next 500 he scored 301, a decrease of 147. Brett Hull, meanwhile dropped 133 goals (386 to 253), Teemu Selanne 127 (321 to 194) and Luc Robitaille 79 (306 to 227).

All the big goal-scorers don’t taper off in their second 500 games, but a fair number do. And The Great 8 might very well be the next to join their ranks. If so, the Capitals would be wise to heed the advice of center Brooks Laich, who said he hoped his teammates would “keep pride in the other side of the ice” — no matter how badly things might be going in the offensive end.

Later in the day, the Caps filed on a plane and flew to Winnipeg, where they’ll battle the Jets on Thursday night for second place in the Southeast Division. That’s where they are 10 days before Christmas — and seven games into Hunter’s tenure — trying to overtake a club that, last season, finished 27 points behind them and out of the playoffs.

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