Two years ago, the Washington Capitals were so far down the standings that it was easy to rally around a “nobody believes in us” attitude. Last season, the Caps constantly were short-handed because of injuries.
This season, however, the Caps are almost entirely healthy and expected to be one of the elite teams in the NHL from start to finish. Living up to those expectations could be the Caps’ biggest challenge.
“We have to play up to how good we are,” captain Chris Clark said. “On paper, we’re probably a top-two talented team in the league, but we just have to show it. It is a long season, and I think the hardest thing is - we know we have the talent - is just to do it every day and be consistent. Consistency is the hardest thing to do. It will be our toughest battle this year.”
Their coach may disagree in an attempt to keep them humble, but the Caps do boast one of the most talented rosters in the league. There will be few nights this season when Washington is not the favorite before the puck drops, especially at Verizon Center.
That’s part of why a 4-3 loss Thursday to the New York Rangers was troubling, but the problem with the defeat was how it happened. The Caps were outworked. They didn’t follow the game plan. There was too much individualism.
Because of this, Bruce Boudreau skipped practice Friday to give himself more time to prepare for a post-workout video session. The season may barely be more than a week old, but he wasn’t waiting around to combat these issues.
“It is the inconsistency,” he said. “We really watch the tapes to put pre-scouting things together on how to beat other teams, and when we go out there and we don’t do it on set plays, it really bothers us. I thought there were certain times during that game where the work ethic was better by the Rangers than it was by our guys. They wanted it a little bit more for some reason, and I wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
No team is going to “have it” every night. The season is too long, and the grind from travel, nagging injuries and other factors means some nights even the best clubs will produce a stinker.
On the same night the Caps lost to the Rangers at home, Boston got rocked by Anaheim 6-1 at TD Garden. A night earlier, Pittsburgh was shut out at home by Phoenix. Washington’s opponent Saturday night, the two-time Stanley Cup finalist Detroit Red Wings, dropped two games to St. Louis to open the season.
It happens, but what separates the teams in contention for a Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup from the other good teams is the ability to limit the clunkers and to bounce back from one quickly.
“You don’t like it when they happen, but you have certain points in the season when you lull,” forward Mike Knuble said. “The trick is to keep it to one game. You can’t play two or three games very well and then slough off for a couple. You’re not going to get anywhere with your record. You want to go seven, eight, nine games good. And then if you have a bad one, you have a bad one.
“It is a standard in the locker room that you have to set.”
Boudreau preached to his team after practice Friday about eradicating bad habits. The Caps have followed five near-perfect periods to start the season with seven (plus an overtime) of inconsistent play.
There’s no question this team is going to be able to score goals even when it freelances and deviates from Boudreau’s plan. The Caps also have shown their work at the other end of the ice is going to suffer when that happens, and that could lead to more games like Thursday night’s at Verizon.
“The expectations are there, and there is a little bit more pressure, but we want that,” defenseman Mike Green said. “We want that pressure. If you want to be a championship team, then you have to be able to deal with that pressure. We’re a little bit down from losing, but it’s only been four games.
“We’ve got a lot more to go. We just need to get better each day. We can’t go backwards.”