UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Around the league, the Washington Capitals' early-season success has made them a target. They're an elite team with a lot of wins based on a combination of scoring depth, goaltending and, of course, a bit of luck.
That was coach Bruce Boudreau's assessment Saturday morning. Several hours later, the Caps lost just their third game of the year to the last-place New York Islanders, and while it was just one defeat on the tail end of a back-to-back, it also taught them an important lesson.
The opponent doesn't matter if the Caps don't play up to their capabilities. At that point, they more or less beat themselves.
"It's a learning curve, but it's that commitment to doing the same things all the time," forward Matt Hendricks said. "When we get away from our game, we're not as good as we can be."
What Hendricks means by that is the difference between Friday night's 5-1 victory in Raleigh, N.C., and Saturday night's 5-3 loss on Long Island. A strong game with limited turnovers, fundamental hockey and varied shot selection makes the Caps dangerous.
But the things that went right and kept going right at the Carolina Hurricanes turned around on Washington against the Islanders, forcing even a 9-3 team atop the Southeast Division to take a good, hard look at what can go wrong.
"It's a lot of things. We had lapses. And when we do the things we're supposed to be doing, we're successful. When we don't do the things that we're supposed to be doing, we're not successful," Boudreau said. "It's like any other team. We started to become a little bit individualistic and [committed] turnovers and turnovers kill you."
Goaltending played a role in the loss, as Tomas Vokoun took the blame for bad goals, saying, "I let the team down." But the rest of the locker room also has things to work on in preparation for Tuesday's game against the Dallas Stars and beyond.
There are some issues with defensive zone coverage, such as not allowing opponents to get open within spitting distance of the crease or defensemen tying players' sticks up to prevent deflections and rebounds.
And then there are the turnovers, which defenseman Karl Alzner pointed to as a common theme in his team's defeats so far.
"The second period [Saturday night] we started to beat ourselves, throwing pucks through the middle, not getting it deep. That's what happens. They get the puck on transition and score some goals," Alzner said. "It's the same thing that happened in the Edmonton game, the Vancouver game — the same thing — and this one. So it's a little bit of a trend where we start to do to these things to ourselves and teams are capitalizing on us."
During a game, Boudreau said, all he and his coaching staff can do is remind players of bad habits. It's impossible to bench half the team for mistakes, so the staff will likely emphasize a continuation of the habits seen in many of the nine wins.
And the constant reminders, such as Saturday night, that even the best teams — perhaps especially the best teams — are capable of beating themselves.
"You've got to learn by trial and error here," Alzner said. "Right now, you get enough of these where you start to feel pretty bad when you turn the puck over and the other team scores that it's just kind of beaten into your head that you won't do it anymore.
"After that, hopefully we'll have some more success."
NOTE: The Caps on Sunday assigned forward D.J. King to Hershey of the AHL. King has played in one game this season.
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