Ovechkin injury just part of Capitals big collapse

Alex Ovechkin is injured. A benched player is needling the

coach. Players are talking about being outworked and not being

mentally prepared.

The usually upbeat owner calls one performance ”unacceptable”

and all but declares the next game a must-win, only to watch it

turn into another clunker. The coach’s idea of a ”solid game”

these days in one in which the team falls behind after 10 minutes

instead of the usual three or four.

Oh, yeah, and the trade deadline is a few days away.

Such is the state of the Washington Capitals, a team whose

annual chase for a title is turning into a feeble attempt just to

make the playoffs.

”We had huge expectations,” forward Mike Knuble said Thursday.

”And it hasn’t played out the way we planned.”

That’s the exact sentiment the Capitals are usually uttering in

April or May, after they’ve crashed out of the playoffs after

winning the Southeast Division. This year, they are sitting outside

the postseason – in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and third

in the Southeast – after a road trip in which they lost their final

three games by a combined score of 12-3.

”The last two games, we weren’t ready to play,” defenseman

Karl Alzner said. ”We weren’t prepared mentally.”

With such signs that perhaps not everybody has their heart in it

anymore, the players held their own meeting Thursday morning. It

only lasted a couple of minutes, and, according to Alzner, served

to make sure that no one would be trying to ”mail it in.”

”I think when you’re so used to winning games in the regular

season and you stop winning and you’re not at the top of the

league, your whole mindset changes,” Alzner said. ”It’s like that

with every person in regular days, something doesn’t go your way

and you start to second guess yourself a little bit.

”It’s the same thing with us. When we’re not doing what we used

to be doing, you start questioning. That’s when bad things happen.

You find the players that play the best are the ones that go out

and just do it – they don’t overthink the game. That’s been a

little bit of our issue.”

Added Knuble: ”Your team better have frustration – because guys

want more; they want to achieve more. There’s going to be

frustration, but then it comes to a point where it can get in the

way.”

There were other developments aplenty at the rink as the

Capitals returned home for the first time in a week, starting with

the star player who’s just not been himself lately.

Ovechkin, who missed Wednesday’s 5-2 loss at Ottawa with a lower

body injury, showed up early and skated laps by himself for about

10-15 minutes, but not at full speed. He didn’t return for practice

and did not speak to reporters. Coach Dale Hunter said the former

two-time NHL MVP was day-to-day.

Ovechkin is already on pace for his worst season by far – he has

just 45 points and only one game-winning goal – and associate

goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said last week the Russian star had

perhaps become ”wrapped up too much in the rock star status that

comes with being Alex Ovechkin,” a notion later reinforced by

general manager George McPhee.

Ovechkin’s absence against the Senators didn’t seem to make much

difference anyway. The Capitals gave up the first goal for the

sixth straight game, fell behind 2-0 for the third straight game

and 4-0 for the second straight game.

Ovechkin or not, the Capitals aren’t going to win much if they

keep falling behind.

”Teams are taking advantage of our slow starts right now,”

Alzner said. ”And we’re too fragile to be able to bounce

back.”

Even the daily blog posting from owner Ted Leonsis was a bit

subdued. The same boss who deemed ”unacceptable” the 5-0 loss at

Carolina on Monday and declared ”We need that win” before the

Ottawa game watched the latest loss and wrote something that seemed

a bit cryptic: ”There is a lot to think about – there is a lot to

read. There is a lot to do.”

Certainly, the Capitals haven’t caught fire under Hunter, who

took over when Bruce Boudreau was fired in November. The coach

dismissed Alzner’s assertion that the team wasn’t mentally prepared

and instead maintains that Wednesday’s three-goal loss was a good

team performance undermined by an off night from goaltender Tomas

Vokoun.

Yet, when pressed to cite what was good about the game, Hunter

could only come up with: ”Not falling behind early.” That’s true

only in a relative sense: Washington gave up the first goal at 9:36

as opposed to 3:41 (vs. Carolina) or 2:10 (in the previous game vs.

Tampa Bay).

One player none too pleased with the coach these days is Roman

Hamrlik, who was a healthy scratch for the Ottawa game in part

because Hunter said the veteran defenseman was taking untimely

penalties.

Hamrlik responded by referencing the 3,565 minutes Hunter spent

in the penalty box as a player.

”You should ask him about the penalties,” Hamrlik said,

”because when he played I think he make lots of penalties … so

he should know better.”

Hamrlik is one of the players mentioned as a possible commodity

ahead of the Monday trade deadline, which is yet another

distraction. Given the state of the Capitals – and the fact that

they’re still very much in the playoff race despite the current

slump – it’s hard to figure which moves the front office will

make.

”It’s in the back of your mind as a player,” Hunter said.

”You don’t block something like that out.”

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP