By Jason Sheehan, Washington Correspondent
In this month of holiday cheer, the Washington Capitals must feel like the boy who got nuttin' for Christmas.
The Capitals have given goodwill to all opponents, only winning one out of eight games played in December (Dec. 20 versus San Jose) and losing nine out of their last 11 contests overall.
Washington hasn't been blown out by the mediocre competition it's faced this month. Although wins have been rare and losses are coming at an alarming rate, the Capitals haven't lost a game by more than two goals, accomplished by Detroit, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. Due to poor play at inopportune times, the Capitals, who entered the month of December in third place overall in the Eastern Conference, have plummeted out of the playoff picture.
"I can't stand to lose," said left winger Chris Simon. "It pisses me off more than anything. This is our living and our job and I think we have to wake up.
"You can't blame one guy or two guys. I think it's the whole team and it's small mistakes that are causing a big problem. I just hope we can stick tightly together and pull through this, because we have a great bunch of guys on the team."
Washington has had many chances to win close games, but as Simon said, precious wins are slipping through its fingers. Even with top players such as center Michal Pivonka, right winger Peter Bondra and center Joe Juneau returning from injuries, losses continue to pile up. Coach Jim Schoenfeld has stated his team no longer has any excuses for its woes.
The Capitals' recent West Coast trip exemplifies exactly what can go wrong with a hockey team that lacks confidence.
In San Jose on Dec. 12th, the Capitals trailed after two periods of play, 3-2 but were within striking distance. That distance widened when Tony Granato scored a short-handed goal early in the period. It all started when left winger Andrei Nikolishin threw a blind pass to startled goaltender Jim Carey. Carey then panicked and threw the puck up the middle to Tony Granato, who easily snapped a shot into the net.
After suffering a 5-4 loss to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on Dec. 13, the Capitals appeared to be back on track the next night in Los Angeles. It finally looked like the Capitals were going to end their month-long slump as they led 4-2 with approximately two minutes remaining in the game. But then tragedy struck.
Kings Coach Larry Robinson deserves credit for the move of the year when he pulled former Capitals goaltender Byron Dafoe with 2:29 left in the game. Los Angeles then took advantage of the shell-shocked Capitals by scoring two quick goals to earn a tie. Philippe Boucher scored with 1:29 left and Brad Smyth single-handedly canceled Washington's victory parade with only 26 seconds left on the clock. The tie snapped a five-game losing streak, the longest in Schoenfeld's regimen, but left the Capitals with an empty feeling in their stomachs.
However, it does get worse. In Phoenix on Dec. 17, the Capitals skated into the third period with a 2-1 lead but folded late as the Coyotes scored three unanswered goals and devastated the Capitals, 4-3. It was the first time the Capitals had lost when leading after two periods of play (11-1-1). When asked if it could possibly get any worse than this, Simon quickly said, "I hope not."
"The thing that is costing us games are small mistakes," he continued. "I don't think you can point the finger at certain individuals. I think it's the whole team. We're all making minor mistakes that are causing major problems and the major problem is losing.
"Until we can correct those mistakes, I think the games are going to keep going like this. We're going to have a 50/50 chance instead of dominating and winning a full 60 minutes."
Simon's powerful words carried over into the Capitals next contest at USAir Arena for a rematch against San Jose on Dec. 20. When Simon speaks, everyone listens. Instead of being victims late in a game, the Capitals finally played the role of dominators as defenseman Phil Housley snapped out of a goal-scoring slump and broke a 2-2 tie with 2:27 remaining in the game. Housley streaked down the right side of the ice and roofed a backhand shot over goaltender Chris Terreri.
However, the win was short-lived. The next night at Boston, Washington waved its magic wand once again and found a way to lose in the game's final minute. After the Capitals, who trailed by two goals going into the third period, tied the score at 3-3, Rob DiMaio netted his second goal of the contest with only 56 seconds left to catapult Boston to its third straight win. To make things worse, the Bruins found a way to win without the services of stars Rick Tocchet, Ray Bourque, Steve Heinze, and Bill Ranford.
Schoenfeld just hopes his club will stop giving opponents early Christmas presents.
"Losing sometimes begets more losing," said Schoenfeld after the loss in Phoenix. "I think with our crew, guys are trying to do too much. It's just a matter of recapturing our focus. We'll go back home and we'll keep teaching. The players will keep trying and it will turn itself around. I mean, it won't turn itself around, we'll turn it around."
Schoenfeld continued by saying there are still many games left to be played. "There's still 100 points available to us and we're going to get a big chunk of it."
When asked if the Capitals are in trouble, he spoke without hesitating and said, "No. Not at all."
Yet, not everyone in the Capitals' dressing room is pessimistic. Like Simon and Schoenfeld, Bondra is blaming small mistakes for the Capitals' recent woes. He thinks the slump will soon turn into a winning streak if the Capitals stick together.
"We lost the game, but we have a lot of good stuff to point [to]," said Bondra. "It's a way to dig up from the hole and take a look at the good stuff. Hopefully, the next game we'll play well the whole game, 60 minutes. We'll win that game.
"We have to get some confidence back. As soon as we get that, we'll win a lot of games. We can beat any team in the league."
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