The question posed to several Washington Capitals players drew plenty of uncertainty. What is the biggest problem with this team right now?
At 2-7-1 and dead last in the NHL, it's impossible to pinpoint one thing that has gone wrong.
"We're not scoring enough to win games, I think, and we're letting too many goals in," forward Marcus Johansson said. "That's the biggest problem: We're not winning games."
Simply put, the Caps have lost a lot early under new coach Adam Oates. They've played poorly and lost and played well and lost.
"Playing well is not enough. We got to win games," left wing Jason Chimera said. "Unfortunately you don't get prizes for just too close. Too close only counts in horseshoes, I think. That's what you get points for. They don't count here. You got to get wins somehow. You got to get better goaltending, you got to get better play from our top guys, I got to chip in a little more."
Even as Oates said that "the way we're playing, I think, is the way to do it," the results haven't followed.
The reasons for the underachieving start are plentiful.
"I don't think there's one big gaping problem, but I think there's a couple little things that are really hurting us," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "I think that our [power play and penalty kill] haven't been very good. ... And I think that some of the little mental errors that we're making, it doesn't seem like we're getting the same thing for. A lot of it's just going against."
That was the most common answer among more than a half-dozen players asked about the Caps' biggest problem. Right wing Troy Brouwer cited "mental lapses." Right wing Joey Crabb pointed to "little costly mistakes that aren't from a poor system or poor effort."
"It's pretty simple in my mind," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "We've been playing solid games, it's just those little mental mistakes, those little things during a game, and we're all guilty of it, that are making the big difference. Those are the things that the best players in the league and the world never make because their mental game is stronger."
Even after 10 games full of mental errors, Caps players see the issues as easily correctable. Right wing Joel Ward said, "it's about being sharp."
"It feels like when we make mistakes they end up in our net. It's not a lot of system errors," forward Matt Hendricks said. "I think it's a lot of human error. Mistakes that happen in a game, goals are scored because of mistakes and if you can limit your mistakes to two or three times a game, it's pretty good."
Hendricks, unprompted, invoked ex-coach Dale Hunter's refrain of "It was a hockey play." The hockey bounces aren't going the Caps' way, but it's not a valid excuse.
"We've got to create our own luck," Crabb said. "A lot of times those bounces happen to good teams and they don't let it affect them. We've got to be one of those teams and just, if you're working hard and you're playing good, you're creating your own luck."
What the Caps haven't been creating is a whole lot of offense. Through Tuesday, they ranked 24th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.30. They're the only team in the league that hasn't scored four or more goals in a game.
"We get scored on and we're chasing from behind," Brouwer said. "We haven't been able to score more than three goals in a game, so that means we have to try and keep the other team to one or two. We can't win games as a result."
Given that Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have had their own lapses -- and defensemen, too -- there have been plenty of deflating moments.
"It always hurts giving up easy goals," Johansson said. "It's tough, but we all know we got it in us to play, to score goals and to make plays."
The onus is on the offense to pick it up. And Chimera was quick to shoulder responsibility as much as captain Alex Ovechkin or center Nicklas Backstrom.
"You're not going to automatically just score by pressing a button," said Ward, who has a team-high four goals. "I think it's just going back to mental issues of just being detailed. Once you're kind of detailed in your [game], you'll get chances to score. It's just a matter of executing."
Part of executing is forcing teams to play a certain way. The Caps haven't dictated play nearly enough.
"I do know just from talking to my linemates that we've got to try to create more as a team at the net and try to, overall, play a way harder game, make it hard on the opposition throughout the whole game and not let them have those two- or three-minute breaks where we almost let off," center Jay Beagle said. "That's where we get in trouble, I think."
Trouble awaits for the Caps when they visit the Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night as the beginning of a stretch of four in five on the road. It's a stretch that could put this team in a playoff position or push them deeper into this pit.
But Oates' message to his players has been positive. And that has not wavered.
"You can pinpoint a lot of little things that we might be in a little different situation if we executed better on those," he said. "We have a lot of time left to fix those and get on a roll and play better and keep it going. Hopefully for them, the leaders, the core guys, that they can help the ship go correctly, you know? Back on it."
There's still plenty to do to get to that point.
"You can't go and look at one thing and say this is our problem," Chimera said. "Obviously we've got a lot of problems the way we are."
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