"I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man..."
With that quote from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson foretold the 2013-14 Washington Capitals, a team seemingly hell-bent on impersonating the dual protagonists of his classic novel.
This season, the Capitals have been maddeningly inconsistent, playing hockey in its purest form during the day only to unleash a truly monstrous performance the very next night. It's as if the team has chosen alternating captains, being led at times by the steady hand of Dr. Jekyll, only to give way to the maniacal ministrations of the evil Mr. Hyde. This split personality disorder was first observed at the outset of the Capitals' regular season schedule and has shown no signs of abating.
In the first five games of the season, the Caps earned only two of a possible 10 points, being outscored 20-12 in the process. Their only win came in the shootout. Washington then proceeded to earn eight of a possible 10 points in their next five games, outscoring their opponents 16-10 with another shootout win.
Even within that winning streak, the Capitals showed the frightening ability to alter their personality from one game to the next. After the 7-0 win over Philly, the Caps needed a shootout to beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 after surrendering a one-goal lead late in regulation.
That performance was followed by another rout, this time a 6-2 score against the New York Islanders. Two nights later, however, the Capitals again needed a 3-2 victory in a shootout as they defeated the Minnesota Wild, requiring a late equalizer to force the extra session.
Then things started to get really scary.
In the first game of a two-night road trip to Phoenix and Denver, the Capitals blew a late two-goal lead against the Coyotes on Nov. 9 and lost 4-3 in another shootout, securing only one point. Twenty-four hours later, the Capitals were in some sort of trance, appearing listless in a 4-1 loss to the Avalanche.
The new week suddenly brought new life. Washington secured the maximum six points in three games over six days. First there was a 4-3 overtime win over Columbus on Nov. 12. Three days later there was a 4-3 shootout victory over the Red Wings in Detroit. And the week was capped off with a dominant 4-1 victory against the mighty St. Louis Blues, easily the best game the Capitals had played to date.
Optimism was running high after the Sunday evening victory over St. Louis. Adding to that optimism was the fact that Washington had a generous three-day rest to prepare for its bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a battle for the Metropolitan Division lead.
All fears of another frightening episode were put to rest knowing the team would surely play like its stalwart captain Dr. Jekyll against the hated Penguins. At the time, I even wrote that all is right in the hockey world with the Penguins-Capitals division rivalry renewed.
But all was not right in the hockey world the night of Nov. 20.
Mr. Hyde was on the prowl once again. He strolled up F Street in Washington, DC and terrorized neighboring Chinatown before slithering into the Verizon Center to partake in a physical, bloody, violent sport much to his liking.
Under the guidance of Mr. Hyde, the Capitals followed up their brilliant performance against the Blues with a ghastly display against the Penguins that turned the face of every Capitals fan the palest shade of white.
Washington was ravaged 4-0 in front of the shocked home crowd, which was heartened by how its team started the game but soon witnessed the terrible transformation before its very eyes. It was as if Dr. Jekyll led the Capitals out of the dressing room, onto the ice and through the opening faceoff, only to have Mr. Hyde take over partway through the first period, the team unable to recover.
The game was eerily similar to another grisly chapter from this storied rivalry. Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals began much the same way, as the Capitals were once again riding high from their shocking victory in Game 6, having actually won an overtime playoff game in Pittsburgh. Washington got off on the right foot in Game 7, until everything changed on a breakaway that went awry.
Alex Ovechkin streaked in on Marc-Andre Fleury and decided to challenge Fleury's glove hand, which had been shaky at times during the series. But Fleury was up to the challenge and stopped Ovechkin cold. Ovechkin went to the bench for a line change with a completely dejected demeanor, which quickly spread to the rest of the bench.
It was as if something had been triggered inside the team, leaving it forever changed—for that game at least. As a result, the Caps lost the game 6-2, losing the series with it.
The same phenomenon occurred during the Capitals-Penguins game in question. After what looked like a strong start, the Capitals suddenly morphed into an abomination of a hockey team, not only allowing the Penguins to control the game but refusing to put up any fight in the process. It was truly appalling.
The team went further down the spiral over its next three games, earning one point out of a possible six. After the third of these three games, a 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 27, head coach Adam Oates called the Capitals "lousy" according to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, adding, “We’re not going to win games playing this way, we’re not. We just proved it.”
Things looked bleak heading into the Capitals' second straight Friday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Verizon Center. But somehow, the Capitals managed a 3-2 shootout win after tying the game in the third period.
The following night's game had an even more improbable ending.
Tied at 1-1 late in the third period on The Island, the Capitals gave up a disputed goal to the New York Islanders with 1:51 to go, and the resulting 2-1 deficit forced the Capitals to pull their goalie. After coughing up the puck along the wall, Mike Green had to commit a penalty to prevent an empty-net goal, and then had to hurry back and play goalie to block the shot himself. So the Caps were still down one goal, but now they were short-handed.
Head coach Adam Oates decided to keep Braden Holtby in goal this time and trust his penalty killers, attempting to mount a comeback while playing four-on-five. The gamble paid off as the forechecking Jason Chimera hooked up with Nicklas Backstrom for a sweet one-time combination play from behind the net. The Caps shocked the Islanders one more time in overtime, completing the comeback for a miraculous 3-2 victory.
After the game, Oates summed up the Capitals' sudden change of fortune via NHL.com:
The game is amazing, eh? Greenie gets a penalty on the empty-netter, and it probably saved us the game. That's sports.
This was the type of game the Capitals needed to play to break out of their stupor. Surely the team would use this tremendous victory to spark a sustained stretch of consistent, positive play.
Wrong again. The team would return to the dark side just three days later, as Mr. Hyde once again showed up when the team ventured to the Verizon Center on Dec. 3. It seems to be one of his favorite haunts these days. As a result, Washington was dreadful against the Carolina Hurricanes, losing 4-1 to a team just behind it in the standings.
And yet, a mere three days after that, the Capitals managed a strong performance for the second consecutive weekend, again totaling four points in two games. The Caps defeated the Nashville Predators 5-2 at Verizon Center on Saturday, Dec. 7, then finished the weekend with an impressive 4-1 road win at Madison Square Garden over the New York Rangers.
On Dec. 9, Katie Carrera of The Washington Post wrote how the Capitals may have discovered an equation they can use for future success:
On both nights, the Capitals established a lead but, most importantly, didn’t shoot themselves in the foot or crumble under the pressure of an opponent trying to force its way back into the contest. They played a consistent game with no significant lapse in composure and minimized mistakes by making smart plays, whether that meant chipping the puck out of the defensive zone or being sure to get all five skaters involved on a cycle.
The very next night, the Capitals threw that formula out the window against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead, the team played like Jekyll and Hyde within the very same game. It opened the game like Mr. Hyde, playing wildly and out of control, only to finish the game like Dr. Jekyll, playing smart and under control.
The Caps fell down 3-0 in the first period, then needed a hat trick from Alex Ovechkin to tie the game at 4-4 and a fourth goal from Ovechkin to tie the game at 5-5 with 33 seconds remaining, just to force overtime. Washington eventually won in the shootout.
With the wild win, the Capitals now stand at 17-12-2 with 36 points, good for second place in the Metropolitan Division standings and sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Despite its schizophrenic nature, Washington would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today.
But the regular season doesn't end today; it ends on April 13. Will this Jekyll-and-Hyde nightmare persist until that day, four long months from now? If this horrifying experience does indeed last that long, how heavy a toll would be exacted on the beleaguered Capitals fanbase?
To answer these questions, listen to one more insightful quote from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
“There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”
Note: All statistics updated through Dec. 10 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.