The Capitals, young and old, knew what was coming after a 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars that included defensive malaise and the loss of far too many individual and team battles. Washington knew its play was unacceptable and that a grueling practice would be in order.
For good measure, veteran right wing Mike Knuble publicly called the loss "embarrassing" and said he and his teammates played like "losers" and "clowns." But Wednesday, the 39-year-old was at the front of the pack as players did suicide sprints and took each other on in battle drills.
"That's what leaders do: They get mad and then they lead by example," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You have the oldest guy out here working as hard or harder than anybody. He said what he said last night, but he didn't just come out here and not work. He was the hardest working guy out here, which is why you have great leaders like Mike Knuble."
Knuble's words may not have reached everyone in the locker room, but players at least became aware of them as they were asked about the incisive comments from an alternate captain. All of them got the idea, though, through an hour-and-a-half session that included four rounds of suicide skates and plenty of huffing and puffing.
"I think the message is we need to play better. And when we don't, we don't know what we're doing. You always want to represent yourself and play well every night you can, and it's frustrating when you don't," Knuble said. "You can't shy away from tough messages sometimes."
For a veteran team such as the Capitals, a group that has been to the playoffs and experienced the ups and downs through regular seasons, a skate-till-you-drop workout still is a healthy reminder, players and Boudreau said, that hard work is essential all the time.
"It's like in school you learn it, but you still have to study for it," Boudreau said. "We have to constantly remind them. As far as the skating at the end. If we're not going to work as hard as we anticipate or thought we should have the night before, we'll work a little bit harder today."
Captain Alex Ovechkin agreed with Knuble's assertion about the Caps playing like clowns but downplayed the need for team meetings or further intervention within the room.
"Right now it's just the two games," he said. "If we're going to want to win the game, we're going to have to play how we play against Carolina and how we started playing this year."
But all around the room, veterans and young players alike talked about not enjoying the bag skate, but understanding its purpose.
"You're trying to send a message — message delivered. We all understand," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "There's not a whole lot more that we can do as coaches, it's up to us to take what we've been given and change it."
Wednesday's practice had the theme of one-on-one battles, but the season-long concept has been accountability. Boudreau agreed with the notion that he can't pull the bag-skate card every time the Caps have a bad game or bad stretch of games, so now players realize it's on them.
"It's not his job to come in and beg and plead and literally get down on his hands and knees and ask us to play well and play within our system," Knuble said. "Any good team that ever achieved anything, it's not because of the coach, it's because of the guys in the room."
Now it's up to those guys in the room to take the messages they've received and translate them into game performance.
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