The Washington Capitals have an inferiority complex. Not the psychological definition, where one feels lesser than others in often subconscious ways, but in a new, sports-related direction. The Capitals have an inferiority complex in that they play down to inferior competition on a regular basis. That kind of lackadaisical effort has been evident in two of the Capitals’ last three games, two 5-0 losses to the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils.
In both games, the Capitals fell early and never recovered, almost looking like they didn’t care and had packed it in before the game was even half over. Take Monday’s game for example. The Capitals entered the game with the NHL’s best record and one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. They were facing off against a Devils team that was near the bottom of the NHL standings, missing its franchise player/one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, scoring a league-worst 1.8 G/G and had one home win to its credit. Before the game, this sounded like the cure for the Capitals’ weekend problems. Instead, the Capitals looked lost or uninterested and the box score reflects as such.
This inferiority complex of sorts has uncovered an even bigger problem. The Capitals lack a killer instinct.
Using this year’s 14-6-2 record as a sample, the Capitals’ “consistency” issues have come full circle. Of the Capitals’ six regulation losses and two overtime losses, only three have come against teams that can not be considered inferior to Washington: the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals gave a floundering Buffalo team its first home win of the season and failed to finish off teams like the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs in convincing fashion.
The Capitals win games by outscoring the other team and this theory has become fact in recent seasons. Washington has scored five or more goals in seven games this season, but only two of those games (10/9 against New Jersey and 10/30 against Calgary) can be considered “blowouts.” The Capitals needed five or more goals to put those other teams away because they let them back into the game. In consecutive games against Toronto and Boston, the Capitals allowed three unanswered third period goals (the Bruins tied the game at 3 and the Leafs took a 4-3 lead) and needed last-minute heroics to earn the victory. In fact, even in the aforementioned “blowouts,” the Capitals found themselves trailing before finding the offensive firepower that defines them.
Just over three years to the day since Bruce Boudreau coached the Capitals for the first time, the Capitals, in Boudreau’s candor, took a “crap” Monday. Boudreau has won 155 games since he was hired on November 22, 2007, the most by any coach in the league during that span. Indirectly, this means that the Capitals have won the most games in the past three calender years. Coincidentally, this lack of a killer instinct has manifested itself during Boudreau’s tenure. That is not to say that it is Boudreau’s fault, but if there is any doubt that the Capitals have lacked a killer instinct under his watch, just remember that all four of the Capitals’ playoff series under Boudreau have gone to seven games. A team with a penchant for putting teams away does not do that. That kind of team doesn’t blow 3-1 playoff leads either.
After a 6-4 win over Atlanta November 14, Boudreau said that the Capitals “don’t want to win games 6-4” and “don’t want this reputation.” He has said things like that in the past, but the Capitals can’t shake that reputation unless they make an attempt to do so. The time will come once again when the Capitals will have a 3-0 lead early in a game. Instead of getting “cute,” toying around and trying to make their lead 6-0 or 7-0, the Capitals will need to change their game to the kind that Devils employed Monday: slow, methodical hockey that involves tough defense and dumping the puck, not scoring. It is that cute. wide-open hockey that gives a team trying to make a comeback the room to do so. Scoring almost four goals per game is not a killer instinct; that is what is expected of the Capitals.
After last year’s record-breaking rise and epic fall, it is understandable to think that the regular season doesn’t matter and things needn’t click until April. November, however, is the perfect time to work things out. Finding that killer instinct and dominating inferior opponents needs to start sooner than later. Once April arrives, Washington must have these intangibles in their arsenal. If they don’t, there is one sport that doesn’t require these skills: golf.