Friday, February 03, 2012

Valentine's Day

No, it is not a love story, although it had a happy ending for a group hockey fans. And perhaps it will serve as a source of hope for another group of hockey fans.

February 14, 2009. It might have been a day for young lovers to express their feelings for one another, but it was also a turning point for a hockey team. It was a team that got off to a fast start in the 2008-2009 season, a start that included a six-game winning streak to put them in second place in their division and in the conference with an 11-4-2 record. It was a team with stars, youth, and excitement. It was a team that had been close to a Stanley Cup, but had not quite scaled those last few feet to the summit. It looked for all the world as if this would be the year and that in mid-November, the engraver could be put on notice.

Then, a loss. It became two losses in three games, then three in five… four in seven… a three-game losing streak. The team would go 64 days before they would again win so much as consecutive games. By the time February 14th game along, they had a record of 16-20-3 after their 11-4-2 start.

But February 14th might have been the low point. They took the ice that night and scored two goals in the first period to take a 2-0 lead into the first intermission of their contest. And then the roof fell in on them. Six unanswered goals later – five of them in the third period – the team was beaten, battered, and banished from the playoff-eligible group in their conference. From second in the conference in mid-November, they now found themselves sitting tenth, five points out of a playoff spot and 16 points behind their division leaders.

And then, change. In this instance the change was made behind the team’s bench. It did not look like much at the time, a promotion of a dutiful, earnest sort from a coaching position in the team’s system, an individual with a coaching resume you could fit on a post-it pad. Maybe it was the coach, and maybe it was just “change,” but the team came from behind twice in the coach’s first game to force extra time and get a point when they lost in a shootout. Then they won a game… and another. They suffered a hiccup, then they peeled off seven wins in a row. They would go 12 consecutive games without losing in regulation time.

After Valentine’s Day, when change came to this hockey team, they went 18-3-4 in their last 25 games to finish second in their division and fourth in the conference. They won a six-game series against their most hated rival. They won a seven-game playoff series against a team that itself was young, had stars, and was thought to be up-and-coming. And then, after a sweep that led them to the finals, they defeated the defending champions in a seven-game series, winning Game 7 on their opponents’ ice.

That was the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that found itself mired in very much the same standings swamp in which the Washington Capitals now find themselves. The Caps have made their coaching change, and to be charitable the results would have to be described as “mixed.” They also face a more daunting injury situation with one of their top players out for some time yet to come, and another top player out with no idea when he might be healthy enough to take the ice.

Which brings us to “change.” For the Caps, it cannot happen in the same way it did for the Penguins, but it is going to have to happen for the team to shake off the stale air of mediocrity that has hovered over it for the past three months. Some might think it might come in the form of a trade – an injection of skill and passion that will jump start the team. Thinking like that would seem like a fool’s errand. Not that it should not be done, but that thinking this is all the team needs.

“Change,” if it is to come, is going to have to come from the players already in the room. Fans cannot know what goes on in that room, but they can see what is happening on the ice, and they can read a standings list. What is happening and what those fans are reading is not good, certainly not what they expected when the season started. However it happens – finding an untapped reservoir of determination, finding that groove they had when things were going well, a smile and a nod from the hockey gods – it is going to have to happen. Or else, the Caps are going to find themselves at the end of this season where that other team did before “change” came – on the outside looking in at the party.

And then, one would expect that “change” of a different sort will be made.