As his team desperately tries to break a deepening slump that threatens its postseason hopes, Capitals coach Adam Oates took the same tact on Thursday as two of his prominent players earlier this week.
In recent days forwards Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich publicly said that no speech is going to lift Washington out of its doldrums. That’s not how professional sports works. Yelling may release stress, but it will only take a team so far. In 19 years during a Hall-of-Fame career as an NHL player, Oates never once saw a motivational speech by a player or coach work long term.
“No. Because I don’t believe it works. I don’t. It never worked for me,” Oates said. “You want information. You can yell. But if you don’t fix the mistake, the mistake is still going to occur. You might scare someone, but it still occurs…And if I change they’re going to go ‘He’s panicking. Look – he’s changing.’ And I don’t want to do that.”
And so don’t expect any drastic changes as the Caps (22-20-8, 52 points) head to New Jersey on Friday for the start of a five-game road trip. Washington, which was 12th in the Eastern Conference entering play Thursday, has back-to-back contests with a Saturday game at Montreal. After a quick return home for one practice the Caps then travel to Buffalo, Columbus and Detroit to end the month.
Ovechkin, battling an undisclosed lower-body injury sustained in Sunday’s loss to the New York Rangers, was not on the ice again Thursday with his teammates at practice. So Washington will likely have to snap its six-game losing streak – the last four of them in regulation – without the NHL’s leading goal scorer (35). That leaves opportunities for others players and a balanced scoring attack is crucial without him. But few players see an outburst of emotion as a way to jumpstart a moribund club.
“After the Rangers game the room was pretty silent. And if somebody wants to stand up and yell, where was that two hours ago?” Laich said earlier this week. “Now all of the sudden you’re proving that you’re into the hockey game? The hockey game’s over. Words can be hollow, actions aren’t. Actions are on the ice. You prove it to your hockey team that you’re willing to play and willing to do things right to win. That’s what people follow.”
And so Oates and his coaching staff chose to accentuate the positives from the recent Ottawa loss. Scoring is an issue and will remain so without Ovechkin. But the Senators’ two goals came on a power play and off an odd-man rush. Those were few and far between on Tuesday in the 2-0 defeat.
At 5-on-5 the Caps held their own, which they couldn’t say in the losses to New York and Columbus over the weekend by a combined score of 9-2. That’s small consolation, but it’s what Oates has to build on right now.
“We haven’t been scoring as much as we’d like the last couple of games,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need more traffic in front of the net and more shots, especially when things doesn’t go your way. You have to simplify things….But it’s important that really work together. That’s the only way we’re gonna get out of it. Obviously, you don’t want to see this happen. But now we’re here.”
It is its longest winless streak since Washington went 0-6-2 from Dec. 2 to Dec. 18, 2010 with two overtime losses all it had to show for that stretch, which was famously documented by HBO on its 24/7 Winter Classic program.
The Caps rallied to win the Southeast Division that season and finished with 107 points, making it to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But with just 32 games left in this season, and a 19-day break coming up next month for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, just making it back to the playoffs will be a challenge. Washington can’t afford to fall any further behind on its road trip.
“Nobody’s panicking as far as I know,” defenseman Karl Alzner. “We’re still in a good frame of mind. It’s just waiting it out and getting back to where we want to be.”