Like athletes in any other sport, hockey players can't be expected to be at their best every time they lace on the skates. However, there are occasions when, because of circumstances, it's justified to anticipate a bit more than a going-through-the-motions effort.
The Washington Capitals, who won their season opener last week in Toronto, had two handsome opponents visiting for their Capital Centre debut during the weekend and . . .
A Broadway critic might summarize the play as needing two more weeks of rehearsal in New Haven. Or, he might be a little more forceful and, noting the general listlessness first against the New York Rangers, then against the Philadelphia Flyers, describe the team's emotional range as running the gamut from A to B.
Imagine, opening night with last year's two top NHL squads coming to grips and the Caps tippy-toeing against the hated Rangers as if the contest was one of those mid-March snoozers vs. the Winnipeg Jets.
The Rangers came out flying, acting as if they were performing before their Madison Square Garden faithful and putting a thousand deft shots on beleaguered Washington goalie Don Beaupre. It took the home team nearly 10 minutes to register its first shot on goal, yet it was the first to score.
The lead appeared to do little to inspire the Caps to begin earning the cheers of the crowd. "Our start was a bad sign," Caps coach Terry Murray said. "I thought we'd come out with a lot more jump given that it was our home opener."
The bigger, more punishing and defensive-minded Capitals were anything but, allowing the Rangers to set up shop on Beaupre's doorstep. A power play and a gift-wrapped goal handed to ex-Cap Mike Gartner put New York ahead by period's end and, according to Al Iafrate, "after that, we weren't even close."
Later, the Caps, outshot in every period and playing before only close friends and relatives near the end of the 4-2 waxing, complained about the condition of the ice.
So, all right, teams are guilty of any number of clinkers during the course of seasons that stretch on for several extra weeks. Surely the Caps would right the wrong the next evening against the Flyers and the next super-duper of the NHL, Eric Lindros.
True, the team showed more life Saturday. But it was to no avail in another 4-2 loss. This time, the Capitals were guilty of more mistakes than could reasonably be expected from the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Forgetting the turnovers, the ragged play and the general lack of concentration, the Caps were guilty of returning to a former bugaboo of theirs, failing to get a good shot out of a promising situation. There were stretches in both games when opposing goalies Mike Richter and Dominic Roussel could have opted for a drink from the water bottle on top of the cage as the Caps blundered in from the blue line insisting on making the perfect play.
Still, against Philly, Washington led by a goal entering the final 20 minutes, and all seemed to be in order as the middle of the period approached. Quicker than you can write Greg Paslawski and Kevin Dineen, though, they scored goals, and the Flyers were gone, never to be seen again.
Traditionally in the NHL, a lead entering the third period is more than 80 percent certain of ending up as a victory. Last season, the Caps were 29-4-2 after starting the last 20 minutes with the advantage and some teams were even better than that at protecting the lead.
On this occasion, they were literally blown away, and Philly didn't have a whole lot to do with it. "Giveaways killed us," Murray said. The winning goal was a direct result of Dineen picking Rod Langway's pocket for the puck as though this was the long-time defensive star's first big-league game, not his 976th.
3 The Caps are banged up right now and are lacking some of the firepower they will have later on. Injuries are a given, particularly in hockey, so the coach barely mentions them these days. But just three games into the torturous 84-game campaign heading into tonight's meeting against the Devils at the Meadowlands and Murray allows as how this team doesn't have the hunger of its predecessor.
Heading into the weekend, Washington's general manager David Poile predicted: "We'll find out a lot right off about the Flyers and Rangers." Yeah, like maybe they come to play.