Just about everything has gone awry with the Washington Capitals so far this season, from the 21st-ranked penalty killing, to the 20th-ranked power play, to a defense that has given up more goals than anyone except the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The principal deficiencies in Washington's poor start have been in aggressiveness and leadership on the ice. For most of the Capitals, checks are something to cash on Fridays, not a means of punishing the opposition.
Opposing forwards are permitted to stand in front of the Washington net with impunity, and they are converting rebounds while the Capitals' defense fails to clear the puck. They also are winning the battles in the corners and the slot that determine who wins on the scoreboard.
At the other end, the Capitals' forwards seem reluctant to drive for the net. In the past, they have driven goalies to distraction in front of the crease, but now they seem more concerned with staying outside the new boundary line.
In the leadership area, there has been a notable failure of anyone to take charge during the dog days of October. At least in that aspect, help seems on the way.
Captain Rod Langway, who has whipped backsliding teammates into line in past seasons, has been reluctant to open his mouth this year because he himself has been struggling. But the groin problems that slowed him since season's start have been eased by a bike program, and once again he is becoming a beacon on the ice, rubbing opponents' faces in the glass and generally asserting himself.
The Capitals have been so unsure of themselves this fall that even when Coach Bryan Murray calls a halt to practice sessions, players are reluctant to be the first off the ice. Before, Bengt Gustafsson would be out the door before Murray's echo had subsided, and others would follow.
Gustafsson, of course, is missed in many areas. He was a key to the special teams, which have been so sorry, and he was adept at sensing change of possession, setting up two-on-one breaks for the Capitals and nullifying apparent breakaways for the opposition. This season, opponents often have sailed in on the goal unopposed.
Part of that problem is the habit several defensemen have acquired of delivering the puck too slowly to teammates, of telegraphing passes so they are easily intercepted.
If the Capitals sometimes play as if they do not recognize their teammates, it is understandable. Except for the stretch when the team reeled off a five-game unbeaten streak, the lines have been juggled on a game-to-game and often shift-to-shift basis. Before Murray is condemned for that, however, it must be noted that the changes have been prompted by failure of the previous combinations to accomplish very much.
The special teams are so bad that the Capitals' fans--and probably players, too--must be hoping desperately for coincidental penalties whenever the referee's whistle blows.
The power-play units have been very hesitant, moving the puck so slowly in the offensive zone that it is easily stolen and cleared by the opposition. There is an obvious shortage of good penalty-killers; too often, a goal is scored a few seconds after specialists Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould leave the ice.
There is little reason to pinpoint individuals for what is an overall team failure. But Langway, as noted above, has carried the team's mental health on his shoulders before, and the players look for him to do it again.
Bob Carpenter, a 53-goal scorer two years ago and a 27-goal man last season, was expected to return to his previous form to make up for the loss of Gustafsson. It has not happened, and Carpenter, showing little aggressiveness around the net, has yet to score an equal-strength goal. Like Langway, he has been bothered by nagging injuries--a bruised knee and a bruised wrist.
Last season, the Capitals had many overachievers who enjoyed their best NHL seasons--Dave Christian, Alan Haworth, Craig Laughlin and Greg Adams. Of that group, only Laughlin is close to repeating. In fact, only Laughlin, Gould, Duchesne, rookie center Michal Pivonka and defenseman Larry Murphy seem to be providing maximum performance.
It is easy to pinpoint the goaltenders for the club's inordinately high goals-against figures, but they actually have kept the Capitals in some games in which the overall team effort was inadequate. Bob Mason, in particular, has made some big saves; in the past, they might have inspired his teammates, but not this year.