- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2011

By the time the third period started at BankAtlantic Center on Monday night, realignment was the hot topic. The Washington Capitals were well on their way to a 5-4 loss to the Florida Panthers in a game between the top two teams in the Southeast Division.

The way this game went, the Caps might be thankful to be divorcing the Panthers as a division rival. While a late push made it seem closer and had coach Dale Hunter talking about “character,” Brooks Laich said that’s not enough.

“It’s not acceptable to play hockey for 20 minutes and not execute for the other 40. We’re not here to try; we’re here to win,” Laich said. “If you want to be a professional, you judge yourself by your results, not by your intentions. We’re not satisfied at all tonight.”

Monday night was a showing of just about everything that has gone wrong with Washington over the past month and a half — defensive lapses, bad penalties, shaky goaltending and a futile offense.

Well, the offense was at least futile until the Panthers eased up and the Caps stepped on the gas to make things interesting. But at the end of the night, it was the ninth loss in 13 games as they couldn’t climb out of a deep hole.

“They were sitting back a bit, so it’s going to happen a bit when it’s 5-2, they’re going to sit back a bit. We’ve just got to make a bigger push,” leading goal-scorer Jason Chimera said. “Right from the goalie out, we’ve got to be better right off the bat. We’ve got to get some big saves there. Just overall, we’ve got to get more.”

A coaching change has ratcheted up the effort, as players seem to be rejuvenated under Dale Hunter. But the results simply weren’t there Monday night, as the Caps fell to 1-3 with Hunter at the helm.

The Panthers made a statement by beating the Caps to move seven points up in the Southeast. That’s the biggest lead in any division in the NHL.

“The truth is we looked at this as a big game for us,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We looked at it as a test, and we felt we needed to come out and play a strong game and that was part of the game plan. We certainly did that.”

And while Florida avenged a 3-0 October loss to the Caps, Washington had itself to blame for most of what went wrong. Michal Neuvirth was not at his best in allowing five goals, while team defensive miscues hurt him. Add to that six minor penalties and a 10-minute misconduct to John Erskine, and things weren’t pretty.

A third-period comeback had Caps fans in South Florida buzzing in the final minutes, as Chimera cut the deficit to one.

“We battled. We came back in the third. One inches away from tying it up,” Hunter said. “The boys showed a lot of character that way — and grit where good things will happen if you keep that up.”

But it was not enough to salvage even a point.

Only four more games this season against the division-rival Panthers until the Caps can look forward to seeing them only twice a year. But for now, players are focused on turning things around right now. And while some players said they can draw on the comeback, Laich knows the whole game needs to be like that.

“Our effort — we have to have a third-period effort in the first period and run that for 60 minutes,” he said. “What we’re doing right now is not acceptable.”