Capitals In Free Fall, Dale Hunter Losing Friends By The Day

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Things are going from bad to worse in the nation's capital, and fast. Washington, mired in a 2-5-1 stretch that's seen them drop from first to third in the ever-changing Southeast Division, is having enough problems on the ice.

Now it seems like those problems have spilled over into the locker room. After last night's 5-2 loss to Ottawa, which came just a day after a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the last-place Hurricanes, head coach Dale Hunter publicly criticized the play of his starting goaltender.

Via Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, we find that Hunter was less than pleased with Vokoun's effort a day after pulling him less than six minutes into the game in Raleigh:

After the defeat Coach Dale Hunter repeatedly placed blame on the shoulders of goaltender Tomas Vokoun, largely without prompting from reporters.

“They jumped on us. Tomas would like a few of them back,” Hunter said when first asked about the Capitals’ tendency to fall behind early in games. “He wasn’t as sharp as he should have been, and it’s in the back of our net.”

Asked directly if he believed the team’s bad start was indicative of Vokoun’s performance, Hunter didn’t mince his words.

“We need some big stops early that’s part of the game and tonight we played a good, solid road game and we lose,” he said. “Goaltending is a big part of the game and we need good goaltending.”

This comes just nine days after Hunter bluntly described his reasoning for starting recent call up Braden Holtby in favor of Michal Neuvirth when Vokoun was out with the flu, saying “It’s one of those things that if he was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No."

Though Vokoun wasn't available for comment, Allan Walsh, his oft-outspoken agent, chimed in last night criticizing Hunter's "excuses."

“I’m not going to comment directly on what someone may have said after a game,” Walsh said in a text to Carrera. “I will point out though that hockey’s great coaches throughout history never resorted to publicly singling out a particular player, blaming him for a loss. Where I come from, you win as a team and lose as a team. The oldest, most tired excuse in the book is to blame the goalie.”

Hunter, who was brought in to whip a stale, yet uber-talented, Caps lineup into shape, has guided the team to a 17-17-4 record since taking over. Similar to the frustrations of his predecessor, nothing seems to be working. Now, he's going through the media to get his point across, something that will echo in a room full of veterans.

Or will it? An argument could very well be made that he's lost the attention of his players already.

His decision to scratch defenseman Roman Hamrlik, the subject of recent trade rumors, for last night's game against Ottawa didn't exactly go over very well. Hamrlik, who is in his 20th NHL season, was less than pleased with the coach's reaction to a penalty he took in Tuesday's loss to Carolina, and voiced his frustration with CSN's Chuck Gormley:

So no, Dale Hunter hasn't exactly made a bunch of friends in Washington since taking over for Bruce Boudreau in late November. There also seems to be a disconnect with Alex Ovechkin, who left the morning skate after eight minutes yesterday and was scratched from the lineup due to a "lower body injury."

The former architect of the OHL's London Knights is learning quickly the difference between coaching 17- and 18-year old kids and seasoned NHLers. Fans and writers have already begun to wonder if he was the right choice to succeed Boudreau, or if there's a bigger problem with the makeup of this team.

Though the Capitals are still just two points behind Florida for the Southeast Division lead and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, things could not seem more dire. Talk of blowing up the team has dominated the radio airwaves after years of playoff disappointment followed by this season's vast underachievement through 60 games.

Like many teams around the league, the Capitals still aren't sure if they're buyers or sellers as the trade deadline approaches. With movable parts like Mike Knuble and Hamrlik garnering interest from teams looking to strengthen their lineups, they're in an unenviable position.

But the bind George McPhee finds himself at the trade deadline may pale in comparison to the one he's looking at in the offseason. His first order of business will likely be to assess Hunter's ability to yield results from his players, which so far has been less than stellar.


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