With the Washington Capitals in a slump and their injuries piling up, Coach Ron Wilson tried to brighten his players' moods one day last week by canceling practice and taking them bowling.
First time this season they bowled anything over. But probably not the first time they had been in the gutter.
"Some nights it's like we're the slowest team this side of senior hockey," Wilson said. "I'm being serious. Two weeks ago, I had nine skaters out of the lineup. You get a 0-0 tie in Calgary and you're jumping up and down. We've got a team that has set a higher mark on the tree, and you get guys saying, 'Why are we happy with a 0-0 tie?' "
The defending Eastern Conference champions, who face the Kings on Wednesday and the Mighty Ducks on Friday as part of an eight-game trip, are a shadow of the team that grew together so brilliantly last spring. One explanation for their 8-13-3 record is, opponents who once took them lightly are now motivated to beat them. Another obvious factor is that injuries to Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Michal Pivonka, Sergei Gonchar, Jan Bulis and Yogi Svejkovsky have robbed them of precious offense.
What Wilson can't figure out is what robbed them of their spirit.
Even goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who made a breakthrough last season with a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, has suffered. He has won consecutive games only once and has a 2.99 goals-against average and .885 save percentage.
"It just gets harder and harder," Wilson said. "Your team loses its confidence when so many guys are down. Then guys are coming back too quickly. Sergei Gonchar [who was a holdout] and Andrei Nikolishin looked good for five, six games, but then they hit a wall in a hurry and they're struggling, and their confidence goes out the window. It creeps all the way back to Olie. He's struggling. Goals are going in that weren't going in last year. . . .
"I've been very angry after a few games and angry after some practices. But you don't want to beat a dead horse. You want to be positive and that's what we've been trying to do the last week or so."
That explains the bowling excursion and a planned trip to Las Vegas after they play at San Jose on Saturday.
"Ron is fairly resourceful," General Manager George McPhee said. "If he started squeezing the club now, that would impact the stress even more.
"I certainly don't want to demean anyone in our lineup, but we've been hit hard by injuries and it's difficult to build consistency and chemistry in the lineup when it constantly changes. You not only miss guys when they're out, when a guy comes back, he's not at the top of his game for a while.
"The guys that are playing can play better, and they know it. It's a good team and we're going to support them. We just need to be playing smarter and with better effort. We're all looking forward to getting on the road for a while. You tend to play more conservatively, because there are fewer distractions."
Returning to Anaheim won't be the distraction it was for Wilson a year ago, when he visited for the first time since the Ducks fired him.
"It was my Stanley Cup final," he said. "And then I got a chance to see what it was really like playing in the Stanley Cup finals, which was incredible."
Although another Cup run by the Capitals seems unlikely now, Wilson and McPhee haven't given up--or given in to panic.
"We as a management team have been staying quite positive," Wilson said. "We know the team we have. It just hasn't been on the ice this year."
MORE POINTS FOR JAGR
When he could hide in Mario Lemieux's shadow and let Ron Francis lead the Penguins, Jaromir Jagr acknowledges, he was "kind of, I would say, the troublemaker." Since Lemieux retired and Francis left as a free agent, Jagr has taken a positive turn and has matured into a solid citizen.
"When I didn't play well, when I wasn't happy with myself, I didn't quit but I was screaming," said Jagr, who leads the league with 35 points. "I was uninterested in whatever I did on the ice or whatever the team did.
"I changed because a lot of young players look up to me and I cannot afford [to sulk] now."
BIG GUY, BIG IMPACT
It's no coincidence that the Red Wings began a 6-1-1 surge soon after Uwe Krupp's injured hamstring healed and he returned to the lineup.
The 6-foot-6, 233-pound defenseman is a physical force, but he also has enough skill to jump into plays and become an offensive catalyst. He gives Detroit a formidable 1-2-3 punch with Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy.
"His absence was a big hole for us, because he plays 25 minutes a game," Murphy said. "And he's got such presence. Just look at him."
Although Krupp laughed at the suggestion that he had ignited the turnaround, the idea has merit. No NHL team gets far without a defenseman who can have an impact at both ends of the ice. Look at how much the Kings miss Rob Blake.
"I just want to be solid," said Krupp, who signed a four-year, $16.1-million contract with Detroit in July. "I'm not trying to do anything special. Larry and myself are getting a lot of ice time, and you get tired sometimes, but it has been working out pretty good so far."
As a team, however, the Red Wings haven't peaked.
"We've played good enough to improve our record, but the expectations are pretty high with this group," Krupp said. "Everybody knows how well we have to play to be where we want to be at the end. We just try to improve as the season goes along."
CAT'S TALE OF WOE
Tired of waiting five months for a promised trade, Felix "the Cat" Potvin left the Maple Leafs on Saturday and was suspended without pay. Although rumors had him being traded to Tampa Bay, perhaps in a three-way deal involving Mikael Renberg and Philadelphia's Chris Gratton, nothing appeared imminent.
Potvin is a good guy who has handled his situation with class, but it's disturbing to see a player walk out on a valid contract, no matter his frustration. And instead of forcing a trade, his inactivity might reduce his market value. The Maple Leafs are playing well, thanks to free-agent signee Curtis Joseph, and they feel no urgency to make a move.
A recommendation by a Canadian government subcommittee on sport that the country's NHL teams be given tax breaks faces a tough fight. The Mills Commission suggested an annual break of up to $5 million Canadian--$3.3 million U.S.--for professional teams and recommended businesses and corporations be allowed to deduct 100% of the cost of tickets and luxury boxes. No relief, the committee said, might push more Canadian teams to the U.S.
"I cannot in good social conscience, with farmers facing Depression-level incomes next year, put pro sport teams at the head of the queue for tax help," said John Solomon, a member of parliament for the New Democratic Party. . . .
The NHL, NHL Players Assn. and NHL Officials Assn. have united for a good cause: fighting cancer. NHL teams will hold fund-raisers and donate a percentage of ticket sales to organizations that fight cancer, which has affected Mario Lemieux, John Cullen, Doug Wickenheiser and referee Paul Stewart in recent years. . . . Detroit left wing Tomas Holmstrom has only six goals, but four were game winners. "He's tough to move and he's got a real good touch around the net," Coach Scotty Bowman said.
Canadien General Manager Rejean Houle got a vote of confidence from his boss, Ron Corey, who got the same from his corporate bosses at Molson. It has been a dismal season for the Canadiens, who are 2-9-1 since Nov. 11. . . . Colorado Coach Bob Hartley juggled his lines, putting Peter Forsberg at left wing with Joe Sakic and rookie Milan Hejduk. Forsberg and Sakic have clicked, a key reason the Avalanche has risen to .500.
Edmonton center Doug Weight, who underwent surgery on a torn ligament in his right knee Nov. 3, was pushing to return by early January but had to pull back last week after feeling discomfort while working out. . . . St. Louis goalie Grant Fuhr, who tore a groin muscle Nov. 7 and was expected to miss eight weeks, has resumed practicing and will return any day.
The Islanders might be for sale again, since co-owner Howard Milstein has made a bid for the NFL's Washington Redskins. Milstein and Stephen Gluckstern rescued the Islanders from con man John Spano but created chaos by moving them out of the Nassau Coliseum in an attempt to get public money for a new arena.
They were foiled, but they're still unhappy. So are fans. A few recently staged a protest outside the arena while wearing pig noses, a reference to Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta's description of the owners as "pigs at a trough."