- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

It was the fall of 1983. The Washington Capitals had been drilled 3-0 in Hartford by a bad Whalers team, and their record tumbled to 0-7.

The fans were restless. The previous season the Caps finally reached adolescence with Bryan Murray behind the bench, posting a 29-point improvement to finish with 94 points and getting into the postseason for the first time, though they were quickly ousted. Hungry fans expected more than a 0-7 start.

So did Abe Pollin, the owner, who called Murray in for a little chat. “We’ll be fine,” Murray recalled saying years later, wondering whether his club could survive another horrible October. Two years earlier he inherited a team that was 1-11 under coach Gary Green entering November, and Murray was the eighth coach in the Caps’ short history.

The following night Washington was outplayed by an excellent Philadelphia team but won 4-1, and Murray led the club to its first 100-point season.

Move forward to the fall of 2003. The Caps are 1-6-1, losers of five straight, winless in seven and dead last in the 30-team NHL. And it could be pointed out the funk began last postseason, when the Caps exited with four consecutive losses.

“We’ve been through this before,” general manager George McPhee said. “Unfortunately when it happens at the start of a season it sort of exacerbates everything and people think the sky is falling. We’ve been down this road before, and we’ve worked our way out of it.”

Nonetheless, it is a story that has dogged this franchise since its inception 30 years ago (1-8-1 under Jimmy Anderson that fall). Nobody — coach, GM, media-type, player, trainer, shrink (and there have been a few of those) — has been able to come up with a solid reason why the Caps stink every October, but it happens with the regularity of falling leaves.

The only constant is the Washington International Horse Show, which takes up residence at MCI Center (and previously at Capital Centre) for two to three weeks every October, forcing the Caps on the road.

Various front offices have done many things to break the curse. The Caps have held training camps in London, Ontario; Dayton, Ohio; Hershey, Pa.; Lake Placid, N.Y.; Mount Vernon, Va.; Piney Orchard, Md.; Sweden; and what was then the Soviet Union.

They have broken camp into segments for rookies and veterans, then combined the sessions. They have trained locally but insisted veterans stay in hotels with the rookies. Camps have been held with more than 75 candidates and others with 45 or less and that figure trimmed almost immediately.

“If we had an answer, we wouldn’t be talking about this,” McPhee said, a hair on the edgy side.

“We’re close,” insisted goalie Olie Kolzig, who has not played well in every game this fall but is far from the sole reason the Caps are losing. In their five straight defeats, Washington has scored six goals, the same number they scored on opening night against the New York Islanders.

The coaches and players all agree the team played well in its last two games and in Dallas earlier, but all were losses.

“We’re right there,” Kolzig said. “I know our record doesn’t indicate how we’ve played the last few nights, but we’re playing a lot better than the record shows. We hope to start something good here at home [tomorrow night against Anaheim]. It’s been a rough trip, but we can make amends at home now.”

Many of the comments in the dressing room after practice yesterday sounded familiar, even though they were made by relative newcomers, players new to the situation. It was as if someone held up a cue card for Kolzig.

“The only way to get out of this is if your core of veteran guys lead the way and everybody else follows,” said the man who has been a Cap since 1989, longer than anybody else on the team. “There’s no question we’re the guys who have to do it.”

Notes — The players and their families attended a Halloween party Sunday night, and soon players were cordoned off by themselves to hash a few things out. Similar meetings in the past have given the team significant boosts. … Center Robert Lang and left wing Matt Pettinger missed practice yesterday, both with the flu. Coach Bruce Cassidy indicated others, including himself, also might have it. …

Nolan Yonkman, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive prospect the Caps have been trying to work into the lineup, is out four to five months after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament Friday night in a game in Portland, Maine. Yonkman was sidelined with three separate injuries last season, playing 24 games, and missed part of training camp when he was hurt again.

“We project him as a guy who can play in this league,” McPhee said. “He’s had a bad year, but he wants to play. This is just unfortunate.”

The 22-year-old was up for one game this season, and there was talk he would be recalled again.

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