Puck the Media’s Summer Reading Week #4: An Excerpt From Ted Starkey’s Transition Game

Summer can be dull for a hockey writer, especially a hockey media writer. So, I’ve decided to take on a new project until hockey season returns. Every Monday (or at least most Mondays) will feature “Puck the Media’s Summer Reading/Watching Project.” It will contain various hockey/non-hockey books and DVDs and other goodies for the whole family (or just the nerds). Why should you care? Because the Tuesday after every review, you’ll have a chance to win the product reviewed. So check in with me every Monday and Tuesday.

This week, in a bit of a departure, we’re going to feature the excerpt of a chapter from friend and writer Ted Starkey’s upcoming book about the Washington Capitals 2010-11 season, Transition Game. Ted is a great man and one of the biggest helps to me on my visits to Washington, so enjoy the excerpt and get the book when it is out in September, though of course, you’ll get a chance to win a copy of your own tomorrow.

CHAPTER 8: 
‘24/7’ ARRIVES – WITH A LOSING STREAK

With four weeks to go before the Winter Classic, the focus on the Capitals was going to be taken to a whole new level. The hype over the new series would be even more pronounced than the media crush that accompanies a team’s playoff run, since there would be no recluse for the players in front of a nationwide audience.

Even though it was only December, the “24/7: Penguins vs. Capitals” experiment would be a tough mental challenge for the Capitals to get through, as everything the coaching staff and players did – and said – would be put under a microscope and examined by fans and media alike.

Frustration would be shown in full view of a national audience – many of whom didn’t follow the Capitals on a regular basis – and the scrutiny of a first-half contest over an 82-game schedule would be examined closely by fans.

As the HBO crew arrived in the District, an uncharacteristic slump was beginning to take hold over the team. The Capitals’ offense that led the league in goals the season before was beginning to show signs of sputtering, and after a year-and-a-half of being able to score virtually at will in the regular season, the Caps now were embarking on what proved to be a serious power shortage.

The scoring slump would lead to a fundamental chance in the team’s style, and changed the way the Capitals played the game. With the team not able to score as much as they had been accustomed to, the coaching staff would elect to employ a more defensive system to try and win tight games.

Through the first 27 games of the season, the Capitals had reached the six-goal total in five different games. However, after their 6-0 win over Tampa Bay on Nov. 26, Washington would only reach that figure once more over the final 64 regular season and playoff contests.

Filming for “24/7” was officially slated to begin on December 5 – the day after Washington’s next home game against the Atlanta Thrashers – but shooting for the series was moved up two days to allow the crew to chronicle newest Capital Scott Hannan’s search for a house in Arlington.

The Capitals had returned home from Dallas to host the Thrashers.

The last time Washington faced Atlanta netminder Ondrej Pavelc, he gave the Capitals a scare after his on-ice collapse in October’s season-opener in Georgia. This time, instead of a medical concern, Pavelec frustrated the Capitals with 45 saves in a 3-1 Atlanta victory for the Thrashers’ first win in the District since 2008.

After a scoreless first period – one where the Capitals outshot Atlanta 15-9 – Washington poured 20 shots on Pavelec in the second, but found itself trailing 2-1 after 40 minutes.

The Thrashers put themselves in front with 12:03 left in the second when Rich Peverly tipped in a Dustin Byfuglien shot past Semyon Varlamov, then Alexander Burmistrov doubled Atlanta’s lead just 1:32 later.

Alexander Ovechkin finally got Washington on the scoreboard on a dominating shift late in the period, burying a one-time feed from Alexander Semin with :48.2 left in the frame, but that goal was all the Caps had to show from a 35-shot performance.

“It looked like we didn’t get very many second shots,” Bruce Boudreau said. “You can have 100 perimeter shots and it looks good on the [scoreboard] but if they’re not taking penalties cross-checking you in the back, then you’re not fighting to get through there.”

“I think after first shot [on net], we didn’t find rebounds,” Ovechkin said. “We had lots of chances to find it but we didn’t.”

“We played okay [in the] first period, then we were a little sloppy in the second,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Then we got momentum back when we scored the goal late in the second. We should have bounced back right away in the third period, but we didn’t do it.”

Andrew Ladd restored Atlanta’s two-goal lead 2:27 into the third in what Boudreau said afterwards was a “deflating” goal, and afterwards the concern over Washington’s lack of scoring was evident in the locker room.

“We didn’t work hard enough out there,” Backstrom said. “In this kind of game, we have to score on the power play. We have to look at some tape and see what we did wrong.”

“It happens to every team and every player,” John Carlson added. “You just have to work through it, battle through it. There are no excuses. We’re a good enough team that we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”

“I think it’s a lack of commitment to paying the price to score,” Boudreau said afterwards. “We’re all wanting to score. But we’re staying on the perimeter hoping to get the puck rather than being the guy that’s going to the puck.”

The loss – the Capitals’ first back-to-back regulation losses since being beaten twice by Boston in mid-October – was paired with the arrival of HBO at a public event in the shadow of the White House at the National Sculpture ice rink in downtown Washington.

Even a normal community relations event was going to be put in the spotlight, as the skate with fans at the outside rink by several Capitals was captured for one of the first segments of the series – complete with questions on the team’s recent slump.

While the Capitals certainly have gotten an increase in media coverage in recent years thanks to the team’s on-ice success, it was nothing like having several cameras embedded throughout Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

“It was shocking,” Nate Ewell said of HBO’s arrival. “They do a good job of kind of blending into the background to the point where you’ll see them around and you kind of get used to it. Then, you’d turn the corner into the training room or weight room and forget they were going to be there, and they’re there.

“There were three guys travelling with each camera – a cameraman, an assistant and a sound guy, so everywhere you go it’s noticeable. The good thing was the crew was such a good group of guys, and they’ve done ‘Hard Knocks’ so they knew how to act around a team. It was definitely shocking, and after a few days you’d get more comfortable, but you’d never get to the point where we’d be completely comfortable.”

On the ice, the Caps returned to suffer perhaps their most frustrating loss of the season so far at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs – in full view of the cameras.

Mathieu Perreault – recalled to take a forward spot with the Washington roster when Tomas Fleischmann was sent west to Colorado for Hannan – put the Capitals on top just 2:55 into the contest with a deflection of a Tom Poti shot for his first goal of the campaign.

“Every time I get called up it seems like the first game I’m flying,” Perreault said afterwards. “Now it’s just a matter of doing it every night.”

Clarke MacArthur tied the game for Toronto with 9:13 left in the frame, but Mike Knuble put the Caps back in front before the end of the first period by collecting his own rebound and then beating Toronto netminder Jonas Gustavsson with 5:02 left to play.

Perreault added his second of the night 6:46 into the second period with a wrister that beat Gustavsson, and then Ovechkin upped the lead to 4-1 with a long blast from the top of the faceoff circle with 6:10 left.

After 40 minutes, the game that was fully in Washington’s control. But what had seemed like a sure two points for the Capitals quickly evaporated late in regulation. Mikhail Grabovski cut the lead to two 4:16 into the period, and then the Capitals surrendered the lead in the last 2:23 of regulation on goals by Tim Brent and MacArthur.

Despite grabbing the point with overtime, Washington lost in the shootout, leaving a stinging 5-4 defeat.

“It’s frustrating anytime you give up a 4-1 lead in the third period, you’re going to be angry,” Boudreau told the media afterwards. “It doesn’t happen and it’s not supposed to happen.”

“We quit playing in our zone,” he added. “We just wanted to play safe. You can’t just allow a team to come into our zone all night long. When they were in our zone, our positioning, by both defensemen and forwards, was really bad.”

”I don’t know what happened [in] the last 10 minutes. It started with our line when Grabovski scored,” Ovechkin said. ”[A] 4-to-1 lead after two periods is pretty big. Losing a game like this is pretty bad for us. It’s a lesson and it’s good we have another game soon.”

HBO cameras caught Boudreau showing his raw feelings to his players before the media was allowed in.

“Look, it’s a 60-minute game,” he told his players. “I don’t know what happened in the third period, but we quit playing the game. There’s one thing about playing defensive hockey, and there’s another thing about quitting playing the game. We let them come into our barn and score three goals in the third period. It’s not right.”

Washington also got some tough medical news with the beat, as defenseman Jeff Schultz fractured his thumb in the contest, leaving him out for what the team feared would be four to six weeks.

“Every team has injuries,” Boudreau told reporters. “Every team goes through this. Adversity is something you have to deal with.”

Three nights later, the Capitals looked to turn things around against the Florida Panthers. With Washington struggling to light the lamp, the team was trying a new system where the club would be more responsible defensively in the hopes of helping team’s chances for long-term success.

“We didn’t attempt to do anything early on in the season,” Boudreau explained later of the transition from a free-flowing to a defensive style. “Those guys, they’re such a good group of players that they would have bought into whatever I was trying to sell, because they want to win. Once it got to that point in the middle of the losing streak, we said we had to tweak things. … They were not radical changes.

“We didn’t say we weren’t going to stop scoring [by introducing the defensive system] – we were just weren’t scoring.

“We could tell from the beginning the year that we weren’t getting the same [scoring] production we had in the past. If we weren’t going to score four goals a game, we better not give up more than two.”

Even though the Capitals were the league’s leading goal-scoring team the previous season, Boudreau felt the change had a long-term impact on the team, even with the short term struggle the team saw in December.

“Whether if they were the perfect players [for the system] or not, they all bought into it, they became the best defensive team in the league from January on,” Boudreau said after the season’s end. “You sacrifice maybe a couple of 2-on-1s here or a couple of scoring chances there to make sure they weren’t scored upon. I thought they did a fabulous job with it and grew.”

Of course, in the midst of a losing streak, the limited results on the scoresheet now were also showing up on televisions nationwide.

“It’s a tough month, and HBO’s in here,” Boudreau told the players in a meeting before the Panthers game on December 9th that was captured by HBO cameras. “But at the same time, I can’t watch what we’re going through without saying what needs to be said. … I guarantee you in the Pittsburgh locker room when they’ve won 10 in a row and they’re undefeated in 12 games, everything’s laughing and jokes.

“They’re going to be talking about two teams, one struggling and one having the time of their lives.”

However, the sour storyline for Washington continued with a 3-0 loss to Florida. After pouring 27 shots on Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen through two periods, Michael Frolik scored on a scramble in front of the Washington cage with just one second left on the clock.

“We’re going through a tough time scoring goals right now and we have to battle through it,” Hannan said afterwards. “It was a 0-0 game after 40 minutes then they scored one late and we kind of sagged after that.”

Of course, HBO cameras later revealed the profanity-laced tirade Boudreau told his players in the locker room following the Frolik tally. The speech later became the talk of the hockey world the next week following the airing of the first episode.

“I have never seen a bunch of guys look so f—ing down when something bad happens,” he said. “What are you guys, like prima donna perfect if you can’t f–king handle adversity?

“So s–t’s not going right. It’s not f—king working the last 10 days … Get your heads out of your a—and f—king make it work by outworking the opposition. You kill two f—king men [disadvantage] and then we stand around and watch it while they f–king score here.

“Outwork guys! If you want it, don’t just think you want in, go out like you f—king want it. But you’re not looking like you want it, you look like you’re feel sorry for yourselves. And no one wants anybody who’s feeling sorry for themselves. You got 20 f—king minutes and you’re down by one f—king shot. Surely the f—k [you know how to] deal with this.”

Despite the impassioned speech, the Caps didn’t respond.

Washington came out flat in the third, as Steve Bernier and Mike Santorelli scored for Florida to salt away the Capitals’ fourth straight setback as boos from the capacity crowd at Verizon Center rained down on the team following the final horn.

HBO cameras showed Boudreau ready to address his team after the defeat, then mutter something under his breath and turn down the hallway away from the locker room.

“It’s not going to be a cakewalk – every team that plays us is going to be ready for us,” Boudreau told reporters afterwards. “We have to change a little bit of the way we play.”

“It feels pretty bad,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “We had, I think, 20 minutes of power play and we didn’t play how we have to play. We played so casual and you can see the results.”

“It’s tough to learn how to win,” Hannan told reporters.” You’ve got to play within the system. We’ve got a good system here that works. When it does, the team scores a lot of goals, but sometimes you run into those goalies who are saving the puck, that are seeing the puck well and you have to learn how to battle through that.”

Compounding Washington’s woes on the ice was a flu-like illness that was racing around the locker room, forcing the team to send some players home from practice that Friday to avoid the spread.

And to add injury to illness, Mike Green left practice early that day for what HBO cameras revealed as an MCL sprain. While it was unclear until the episode aired the following Wednesday what had really happened to the defenseman, the media worked under the assumption that it was related to the illness going around.

In the National Hockey League, injuries are a closely-guarded secret. Unlike the National Football League, where teams must issue an injury report for every game, teams are exceedingly vague about injuries by using non-descriptive terms such as “upper-body” or “lower-body” injury.

Of course, this is done to protect the players, as if an opponent knows a certain player has a broken bone or an ailment, there always will be a skater who will look to take advantage by taking a whack or slash at the injured area.

Having cameras in the sanctity of the training room – where media is usually never allowed to go – was something the Capitals had to deal with during the month of December.

“We knew that [injuries were] going to happen, so that wasn’t too strange to live through just because we were prepared for it,” Ewell said. “When we looked up where they could go and what they could do, we brought up every scenario that could come up.”

Even for those who covered the team, HBO’s series showed how teams would be able to cover the nature of a player’s true ailment.

“For me, that program was so remarkable because it made a mockery of the dance that the media, players, and organization go through on a daily basis during the season,” said TBD.com’s Sam Chamberlain. “More often than not, the process of trying to get information that’s interesting, newsworthy, and suitable for publication or broadcast resembles a World War I trench battle, wherein you fight for every inch of land you can get.

“Then along comes HBO, and the league and the teams jointly offer them a mile. And to their credit, HBO took every inch of it.

“That all became clear to me during the episode when the fact that Mike Green had an MCL injury was almost casually tossed in. That was something that wouldn’t have been reported in any paper or radio/TV program for months, if at all. It was then that we realized that this was truly ‘all-access.’”

With a tough weekend ahead against the Avalanche and Rangers looming, things weren’t going to get better for the Capitals as they tried to snap their losing skid.

Washington played a better game against Colorado at Verizon Center on December 11, but it wasn’t quite enough to end the streak, as it reached five straight losses with a 3-2 defeat.

Kevin Shattenkirk scored 2:14 in for the Avalanche on a centering feed from behind the goal line that redirected off Neuvirth’s pad. Knuble – who was one of the few players who was scoring during the slump despite playing with a partial cage due to a broken jaw – scored his third goal in five games by batting an Ovechkin centering feed out of the air past Colorado netminder Craig Anderson with 10:15 to play in the frame. However, Ryan Wilson put the Avs back up before the period ended.

Semin was given a five-minute major for cross-checking John-Michael Liles just over six minutes into the second period near the cage, and armed with the ensuing power play, Paul Stastny put the Avalanche up 3-1 through 40 minutes. Although ex-Avalanche Matt Hendricks scored a goal 4:30 into the third with a backhander on the power play, Washington would pull no closer and fall to a one-goal defeat.

The loss was Washington’s fifth straight setback, the team’s longest since November of 2007 – a slump that got former Capitals coach Glen Hanlon fired, and brought about Boudreau’s promotion from Hershey.

Despite the lengthening skid, Boudreau was more upbeat in addressing his team in front of the HBO cameras following the loss.

“Great f—king game, and you didn’t get rewarded for it. Sometimes that what happens and you can’t get discouraged by it.

“You’ve got to f—king push through this little thing and when it does, you’ll already be where you have to be all the time. So don’t get discouraged I know it’s f—king tough but you f—king played a great game and get your head up.

“We play that good tomorrow and I guarantee you’ll come away with two points.”

Once facing the media, Boudreau praised the play of Hendricks and echoed what he told his players minutes before.

“Hendricks, I thought, was our best player on the ice,” Boudreau said of the gritty winger.

“I think we played really hard,” Hendricks said. “We had great goaltending tonight. We played a solid 60 minutes, but they played well too. We made a couple of mistakes and they took advantage of it. But I’m happy with the effort tonight compared to the last few games.”

“That looked more like our team tonight,” Boudreau said. “When things aren’t going well, that’s what happens. It’s on the upswing. It’s not on the downswing. If we have an effort like that tomorrow, we might get rewarded for it.”

Unfortunately for Boudreau and the Capitals, there wasn’t that kind of effort that was on display by the team in white the next night in Madison Square Garden. The game they got perhaps topped the previous month’s 5-0 shutout losses to Atlanta and New Jersey as Washington’s worst effort of the campaign.

The game was a rag-tag effort in a 7-0 shellacking by New York that left even veteran hockey scribes asking the visiting Washington writers just what was going on with the Capitals.

With the injuries and illness surrounding the club, Washington was forced to recall Andrew Gordon from Hershey for the contest – one that turned quickly against the Capitals after a tight start to the first period.

Brandon Prust eventually New York up on top with 2:03 left in the first period with a shot that just deflected off Semyon Varlamov’s blocker, putting Washington down a goal after 20 minutes.

“Keep it going boys,” HBO’s microphones caught Ovechkin saying heading into the dressing room. “Lucky goal.”

“Cheesy goal,” Chimera said to his teammates.

However, a quick start by New York to the second period opened the floodgates for the Rangers – and buried the Capitals.

Artem Anisimov beat Varlamov with a wrister just 59 seconds into the frame, then Marian Gaborik tipped in a Marc Staal shot 3:07 into the period for a 3-0 lead, causing Boudreau to call timeout.

“We’re looking f—king defeated!” Boudreau was caught saying by the HBO microphones as the raucous Madison Square Garden cheered the Rangers’ quick start. “We’re looking f—king defeated right now! Show some f—king courage! And f—king play the game properly! … I’m f—king sick and tired of losing! Get your f—king head out of your a–! “

The timeout – and tirade – didn’t stem the tide, as Brandon Dubinsky then caught Washington with a bad line change and beat the Washington netminder for a 4-0 lead just under 25 minutes deep into the contest.

The frustration then boiled over as the Caps’ captain even got into a rare fight.

After Ovechkin delivered a hip check to Dan Girardi in the Rangers zone, he dropped the gloves with Dubinksky, then pleaded for his teammates to “F—king come on for f—k sakes!” as he skated to the penalty box following the bout.

The fight didn’t stop the Rangers from continuing to light the lamp, as Staal made it 5-0 with a short-handed goal with 10:52 gone in the period.

HBO cameras weren’t allowed inside the Capitals’ room after the disastrous second period, but Dean Evason was overheard pleading for his team to “compete.”

The Rangers’ Ryan Callahan added two goals in the third for the 7-0 final. The loss left the Capitals’ cramped quarters at Madison Square Garden virtually deserted by the time reporters arrived, and also left Boudreau visibly shaken after the contest as he talked to the media.

“I don’t have an answer right now. I got to think about this,” he told reporters in a small side room adorned with photos of events of Madison Square Garden’s past. “It is unfamiliar territory and I think we have a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves, but as you can tell when you get down, teams aren’t feeling sorry for you. They’re pushing and piling it on. We have to figure out a way to get out of this before it’s too late.”

 

About Steve Lepore
Contact me at stevemlepore@gmail.com

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