With the Washington Capitals in a slump and their injuries piling up, Coach Ron Wilson tried to brighten his players' moods one day last week by canceling practice and taking them bowling.
First time this season they bowled anything over. But probably not the first time they had been in the gutter.
"Some nights it's like we're the slowest team this side of senior hockey," Wilson said. "I'm being serious. Two weeks ago, I had nine skaters out of the lineup. You get a 0-0 tie in Calgary and you're jumping up and down. We've got a team that has set a higher mark on the tree, and you get guys saying, 'Why are we happy with a 0-0 tie?' "
The defending Eastern Conference champions, who face the Kings on Wednesday and the Mighty Ducks on Friday as part of an eight-game trip, are a shadow of the team that grew together so brilliantly last spring. One explanation for their 8-13-3 record is, opponents who once took them lightly are now motivated to beat them. Another obvious factor is that injuries to Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Michal Pivonka, Sergei Gonchar, Jan Bulis and Yogi Svejkovsky have robbed them of precious offense.
What Wilson can't figure out is what robbed them of their spirit.
Even goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who made a breakthrough last season with a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, has suffered. He has won consecutive games only once and has a 2.99 goals-against average and .885 save percentage.
"It just gets harder and harder," Wilson said. "Your team loses its confidence when so many guys are down. Then guys are coming back too quickly. Sergei Gonchar [who was a holdout] and Andrei Nikolishin looked good for five, six games, but then they hit a wall in a hurry and they're struggling, and their confidence goes out the window. It creeps all the way back to Olie. He's struggling. Goals are going in that weren't going in last year. . . .
"I've been very angry after a few games and angry after some practices. But you don't want to beat a dead horse. You want to be positive and that's what we've been trying to do the last week or so."
That explains the bowling excursion and a planned trip to Las Vegas after they play at San Jose on Saturday.
"Ron is fairly resourceful," General Manager George McPhee said. "If he started squeezing the club now, that would impact the stress even more.
"I certainly don't want to demean anyone in our lineup, but we've been hit hard by injuries and it's difficult to build consistency and chemistry in the lineup when it constantly changes. You not only miss guys when they're out, when a guy comes back, he's not at the top of his game for a while.
"The guys that are playing can play better, and they know it. It's a good team and we're going to support them. We just need to be playing smarter and with better effort. We're all looking forward to getting on the road for a while. You tend to play more conservatively, because there are fewer distractions."
Returning to Anaheim won't be the distraction it was for Wilson a year ago, when he visited for the first time since the Ducks fired him.
"It was my Stanley Cup final," he said. "And then I got a chance to see what it was really like playing in the Stanley Cup finals, which was incredible."
Although another Cup run by the Capitals seems unlikely now, Wilson and McPhee haven't given up--or given in to panic.
"We as a management team have been staying quite positive," Wilson said. "We know the team we have. It just hasn't been on the ice this year."
MORE POINTS FOR JAGR
When he could hide in Mario Lemieux's shadow and let Ron Francis lead the Penguins, Jaromir Jagr acknowledges, he was "kind of, I would say, the troublemaker." Since Lemieux retired and Francis left as a free agent, Jagr has taken a positive turn and has matured into a solid citizen.
"When I didn't play well, when I wasn't happy with myself, I didn't quit but I was screaming," said Jagr, who leads the league with 35 points. "I was uninterested in whatever I did on the ice or whatever the team did.
"I changed because a lot of young players look up to me and I cannot afford [to sulk] now."
BIG GUY, BIG IMPACT
It's no coincidence that the Red Wings began a 6-1-1 surge soon after Uwe Krupp's injured hamstring healed and he returned to the lineup.
The 6-foot-6, 233-pound defenseman is a physical force, but he also has enough skill to jump into plays and become an offensive catalyst. He gives Detroit a formidable 1-2-3 punch with Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy.
"His absence was a big hole for us, because he plays 25 minutes a game," Murphy said. "And he's got such presence. Just look at him."
Although Krupp laughed at the suggestion that he had ignited the turnaround, the idea has merit. No NHL team gets far without a defenseman who can have an impact at both ends of the ice. Look at how much the Kings miss Rob Blake.