There is no questioning it now. The Capitals are in a rut, passed in the Metropolitan Division by the left-for-dead Philadelphia Flyers and watching the rear-view mirror as the rest of the division gains on them day-by-day.
Given the state of the Metropolitan, which seems destined for just three Eastern Conference playoff teams in the NHL's new Stanley Cup postseason format, it is a dicey position. A loss on Thursday night in Tampa Bay, and Washington could be out of playoff position entirely. There is work to be done. But can the Caps take anything positive from a recent 0-2-2 stretch, which included Saturday's frustrating 5-3 loss at Minnesota?
"It's never fun to lose. That's a tough question," forward Marcus Johansson said. "It always sticks to you when you lose. It's frustrating. You just want to learn from it and forget. I don't think it really matters if you play good or bad. If you lose, it still feels like a bad night."
And as the season slips past the halfway point, just a month from the 19-day break for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Washington needs to snap out of this skid soon.
Seven of the eight teams in the Metropolitan have played mediocre-to-bad hockey for most of the year. Philadelphia, which just passed the Caps for second place with 48 points, fired coach Peter Laviolette just three games into the season. But the Flyers have recovered and now even the last-place New York Islanders entered play on Wednesday with 39 points, just seven behind Washington. A bad weekend, with three games upcoming in four days, could leave the Caps reeling.
"You can't judge teams on the first six weeks of the season. Every team is so good in this league that any night the last-place team can beat the first-place team," defenseman Steve Oleksy said. "And everybody's going to have their moments throughout a season. There's the ups and downs. It's important that we focus on this locker room and the things that we can control."
Washington has an even goal differential. That's not all that good or even notable except that six other teams in the division, including Philadelphia, have been outscored by their opponents this season.
The penalty kill has nosedived the past two months after a stellar start, the goaltending has been shaky with Braden Holtby's confidence taking a hit and Michal Neuvirth asking for a trade. And, anyway, the blueline has made far too many mistakes in front of those two and rookie Philipp Grubauer. Holtby faced just 11 shots in surrendering five goals to Minnesota on Saturday and arguably was at fault for two of them.
The Caps lost defenseman Alex Urbom on waivers to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday — the team they acquired him from on waivers Oct. 3. He hadn't appeared in a game since Nov. 29. Rookie Connor Carrick was recalled from AHL Hershey to take his place. Carrick appeared in the season's first three games before being sent down to Hershey.
Washington coach Adam Oates wasn't ready to name a starting goalie for the game against the Lightning, but Grubauer was off the ice earlier than Neuvirth and Holtby after Wednesday's practice. Neuvirth is finally healthy after stepping on a puck during warm-ups of a Nov. 29 game that he was scheduled to start, but hasn't yet appeared in a game since then.
The Caps are 1-3-3 since Dec. 21 with just five standings points to show out of a possible 14 from those seven games. Four of those losses have been by a single goal and the others were by two goals. Three of them came in overtime or the shootout. There are 17 games left between now and the Olympic break, nine of them on the road, but only four are against teams ranked in the top 10 in points in the NHL. There remain opportunities in front of Washington to regain its footing.
"You want to find ways to win," Oates said. "But I still think that if you play well it'll turn and you'll win your share. And that's still important to me. You want to win games. Sometimes you win games that you don't deserve. But if we do things, correctly, be consistent and work on mistakes, it'll go our way."
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