They practiced hard when pushed for 45 minutes, held a brief meeting and then bolted for the doors, some not even pausing for showers. The All-Star break began for the Washington Capitals yesterday, only it seemed more like an escape for some.
Right wing Jaromir Jagr and defenseman Sergei Gonchar were en route to Los Angeles for tomorrow’s game; rookie defenseman J.F. Fortin returned to Portland, Maine, to play a few games in the minors; others just got out in a hurry.
“I asked our guys to assess personally their performance up to this point and come back Monday ready to get back to work and improve on our No. 1 priority getting better defensively and being committed to it,” said coach Ron Wilson.
This is not where anybody expected the Caps (20-26-8) to be at the All-Star break, 12th in the 15-team Eastern Conference; second to Carolina by 12 points in the Southeast Division, the worst in the NHL; seven points out of a playoff spot with 27 games to play; owners of the second worst defensive record in the league a stark turnaround from Washington tradition.
It’s no wonder players were running for the doors.
“Yeah, I think that would be the best way to approach it,” said center Adam Oates when asked if the team needed a refresher after playing 19 games in the last 36 days, the result of squeezing the upcoming Olympic and All-Star breaks into almost the same number of days normally used for a regular season. “We’ve been struggling and been down, so we have three days to charge the batteries.”
There have been suggestions that some of the players are having a tough time coping with the adversity, especially after the expectations for the club soared with the summer acquisition of Jagr. Oates said he “hadn’t seen any sign of that,” and Wilson was baffled by the very thought.
“I don’t know why in sports, when it’s so fickle, that when you’re four or five points behind that the season may be over,” the coach said. “It’s a Yogi Berra-ism it’s not over ‘til it’s over. It couldn’t be more true, especially the way we’ve turned things around in the past. There’s no reason to believe with Minnesota on the schedule Wednesday that we can’t win that game. The next four games are against teams that if we do things right and beat and I personally and strongly believe that if we do things right we can beat anybody, but particularly when you’re dealing with teams that don’t have a lot of wins either if we do things right, we should win and be right back in the race.”
But Washington has not played well against anybody lately, losing or at least struggling with the meek and mighty. No lead has been safe, no system infallible.
“It’s obviously pretty frustrating,” Oates said. “The fact is, we’ve played a lot of hockey in a short period of time, and the injuries reflect that. We’ve got four games when we get back, two at home and two on the road and we need those eight points.”
But Oates is a veteran of 17 years in the league, riding the fast track to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is one of the players whose effort this season, at 39, has not been questioned, whose character has come forth.
“This is a time of adversity, and in adversity you see what your true character is,” the coach said. “We’re faced with tough times, and if people want to say it’s over, then you would have to question their character when they say it’s over when it’s not.”