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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION

On Swedish Heritage Night, the Washington Capitals played hockey like they were trying to read Ikea furniture instructions, losing to the Dallas Stars 4-2 at the Verizon Center, ending their home winning streak at 15 games.


As a matter of fact, part of the promotion for Monday night’s game against the Dallas Stars at the Verizon Center was fans trying to assemble furniture.


AUDIO: Sports broadcaster Warner Wolf with Thom Loverro


I love the Capitals heritage nights. March 23 is Russian Heritage Night. That ought to be fun.

Before fans could even assemble a drawer, the Capitals had put up one meatball of an effort, down 3-0 with about six minutes gone in the second period. Capitals coach Barry Trotz had seen enough, and pulled the great Braden Holtby. With Philipp Grubauer in the net, Washington managed to battle back to 3-2, but then the Stars hammered the game shut with an empty net goal with just under two minutes remaining.

“Tried to change the momentum by taking Holts out,” Trotz said. “I didn’t think they were playing that hard in front of him.”

Look, the Washington Capitals have been playing the best hockey in the NHL. They have the best record in the league and, with 95 points, were seven points ahead of the three teams tied for second at 88 points after Monday night’s loss.

This was their first regulation loss at the Verizon Center since Dec. 17, and their first loss of any kind at home since Dec. 29. Their franchise-record 15-game home winning streak was the longest in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings won 23 straight at Joe Louis Arena in 2001-02.

“The players trying to set a standard at home, that’s on them,” Trotz said. “They came out and faced some pretty good teams who came in here to try to win some hockey games, and we didn’t allow them to do that. In this day and age of parity, that’s pretty impressive.”

Yes it is.

But there were alarming words that showed up in Trotz’s post-game press conference — familiar postseason words like “urgency.”

“We’ve got to get a little more urgency in our games early,” he said.

Rewind to last season’s second round exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I don’t think we were as urgent on the puck,” Trotz told reporters after his team was eliminated in six games.

The coach calling for more urgency is too familiar a ring for Capitals fans.

It wasn’t just that they lost to Dallas Monday night. Teams lose. You’re not going to win every game.

It was how they lost — a pattern emerging of slow starts in games since the bye week in mid-February.

Slow starts, like urgency, is also too familiar.

“I didn’t like our start today,” Trotz said. “They were a little faster on pucks, and a little more determined than we were early. Then we started ramping up our game but had some costly turnovers and they took advantage of it. We couldn’t find the back of the net enough. We had enough chances.”

Yes, they did — 44 shots on goal, compared to just 22 for Dallas.

“That was more like last year when our starts weren’t very good, battle back in the second, dominate in the second and sort of continue on to the third,” Trotz said. “I can’t think of too many good starts since the bye week.

“We have to get off to better starts, especially in our own building — put the other team on their heels a little bit,” he said.

How does that happen?

Trotz nailed it — the difference if these Washington Capitals are going to break beyond their second-round Stanley Cup exit tradition.

It’s not more scoring depth. It’s not the latest trade deadline savior.

It’s what New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist spoke of when his team battled back from a 3-1 deficit to knock the Capitals out of the playoffs in 2015.

“A lot of these games, it comes down to will,” Lundqvist said. “How badly do you want it?”

It’s the culture of the locker room.

Trotz spoke of “the room” when answering how this team can get off to better starts

“It’s got to come from the room — let’s get going,” he said. “I think we have a lot of confidence, but maybe sometimes a little bit too much confidence against teams.”

I asked Trotz if he thought the “room” had changed since he arrived here three years ago.

“We have learned some lessons,” he said. “I think our room is real strong. I think our culture has grown from year one to two to three. It’s just changed, the culture has changed over the course of time. Winning just doesn’t happen, you have to create that culture, that response … I think it is a little bit different. It’s grown. You have to build it, grow it, and I think our leadership, our staff and organization has done that.”

If so, maybe Stanley Cup Heritage Night will be on the calendar next year.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.


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