- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Lay off the coach, Brooks Laich says.
But the last thing his club needs, Laich said, is to replace Bruce Boudreau behind the bench.
"He hasn't slept in two weeks, he takes this more personal than anybody," Laich told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "I wouldn't trade him for anything. There's not a coach in the world I would trade him for. I think our players all have the same attitude towards him. Every player in that room has had career years playing for that guy. A change in coaching -- whether it's him or [assistant coaches] Dean Evason or Bob Woods -- that wouldn't make a difference because it's the players that are responsible for this, not the coaching staff. We have a dream team of coaches. They make the game easy for us to play and we as players have to reward them."
The 27-year-old Laich, an important leader for the Caps, said his team is repeating mistakes from this past spring's stunning first-round exit.
"It seems eerily familiar to the way we lost out in the playoffs last year," Laich said. "But once we get through this, a few months from now, this might be a blessing in disguise. Because for the first 30 games of the year, we haven't played that well and it looks like maybe we haven't learned our lesson from the loss in the playoffs. Now as players we have to realize that for us to win, maybe we have to tighten up a lot more defensively. Maybe this is happening for a reason and it's teaching us a lesson right now before we go through it again in the playoffs. Instead of winning games 5-3, maybe we have to eek out a 1-0 win, a 2-1 win."
That's been a popular mantra throughout this slump, that the Caps can benefit from some adversity. In 2009-10, the regular season was a wire-to-wire cakewalk and the team didn't face adversity until playoff time. They didn't react well to it in an upset loss to eighth-seeded Montreal.
"Last year, we just smoked through the regular season and I think it was 46 or 47 games into the regular season when Mike Knuble told me after the game that this was the first time we had trailed halfway through a game. It was stunning," Laich said. "But you don't really learn how hard winning is until you've lost, I think. Right now for our hockey club it seems so hard to win a hockey game."
Laich called on his team to get back to the basics: win one-on-one battles, beat your opponent to the net, chip pucks, block shots, draw penalties, you name it.
"So many little things add up to winning and I don't think right now we're doing those," Laich said. "We're going to work our way out of this. We're going to play with some passion and be excited about playing the game. We're going to play with fire and desire and work hard. With that, we'll get out of this."
Wednesday night also happens to be the debut of HBO's "24/7" documentary featuring the Caps and Pittsburgh Penguins in the lead up to the Jan. 1 Winter Classic. Is HBO's behind-the-scenes access adding to the aggravation these days for the Caps?
"The [camera] guys are there, but we go about our business as usual," Laich said. "They're like a fly on the wall as cameras. There's no using the HBO cameras as a crutch or an annoyance or anything like that. There's no excuse. I don't think HBO has played any bit of an ounce in how things have gone the last two weeks."
Speaking of timing, it just so happens veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov is now a free agent after being released from his KHL deal in Russia. That has ignited talk among some Caps fans -- not all -- that Nabokov would be a welcome addition for a team ranked 16th in goals against per game. But Laich stood by his young netminders Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov.
"You know what, we have two fantastic young goaltenders," Laich said. "The sky is the limit for these guys, both of them. Neuvie is just so calm and patient in net and makes everything look so easy. Varly is acrobatic as anybody. They're young kids learning their way. They're going to have bumps in the road. I think it's unjust for the goaltenders to get criticized when we're giving up Grade A scoring chances. We're not giving up a lot of shots but the shots we are giving up are right from the slot, good looks to good players that we can't be giving up."
The Caps are obviously going to play themselves out of this funk, whether that starts Wednesday night against the Ducks or not. But the elephant in the room isn't going anywhere until spring time. No team in this league has more pressure to deliver the goods in the playoffs this year.
"I think there's a lot more scrutiny from the media," allowed Laich. "I think we're under a microscope in your guys' world [media]. For us, last spring was a crushing blow because we had had so much success. That's why we were so mad when we lost. It's about the expectations from our own group. ... People can say what they want, you guys are entitled to say what you want. We don't care. We're in control of how we play. We don't mind what's being said on the outside. Ultimately we have the power to change it on the ice."
2dScott Burnside and Craig Custance