Washington Capitals Unravel as Playoff Hopes Grow Dim

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistApril 9, 2014

Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates stands in the bench in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon

It’s been an interesting few weeks for the Washington Capitals, a team that recorded its first regulation win since March 18 on Tuesday night. That 4-1 victory, featuring Alex Ovechkin’s 50th goal of the season, should have been a positive for a team just barely still in the postseason picture.

Instead, it was overshadowed by an inexplicable decision on the part of head coach Adam Oates:

The comments didn’t reflect well on Jaroslav Halak, a pending unrestricted free agent who will be looking for a home somewhere as a No. 1 goaltender this summer. Bowing out of what could have been an elimination game because of being less than completely comfortable with the opponent is not the sort of thing any general manager wants to see his starting goalie do.

Halak immediately denied the story:

On Wednesday, player agent Allan Walsh, who represents Halak, went one step further. In a statement, quoted here by the Sporting News’ Sean Gentille, he blasted Oates for making the comment:

Jaro never at anytime said he didn't want to start against St. Louis. A private conversation between a player and coach should stay private and not be discussed with the media. I am bewildered that a coach would break that trust especially when those comments the coach publicly attributed to Jaro are not accurate. It's the coach who makes the decision on who plays in the games, not the players.

It’s the second time in a week that Oates has exposed one of his players to public embarrassment. On April 2, he called out both Ovechkin and defenceman Mike Green for their roles in a pair of goals against scored in a game versus Dallas.

“Ovi quit on the play, coming back,” Oates told CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley.

While Ovechkin was scapegoated on the play (and indeed, deserves some flak for his cavalier approach to defence both on that shift and over the season as a whole), it also featured what might be the worst defence of a two-on-three rush this year:

The decision to critique a player in the media is always a dicey one. It’s hard to argue that a player gains much of anything from having his flaws exposed to the world at large by his coach, rather than having them dealt with in private. In a situation like this, where there is a grotesque chain of errors, it can come across as a desperate attempt to deflect blame away from a total team collapse that the coach needs to be accountable for.

(In the same vein, the goal which Oates singled out Mike Green on featured a 2-on-0 rush for the Stars; like Ovechkin, Green has to shoulder his share of the responsibility, but the breakdown was more involved than just one player getting caught with his pants down.)

All of this drama involving the head coach comes at a time when the Capitals’ playoff hopes are all-but-dead. Washington needs to win all of its games and then get a pile of help from one of Detroit or Columbus (both teams had leads in games as of this writing; if those scores stand up, the Capitals will be finished).   

Given the situation, this is already a difficult time for Washington and a dangerous one for the head coach. He’s not helping either the team or himself by sacrificing players in the press.