LOS ANGELES — Four victories in a row, and the Washington Capitals were rolling. It was their first winning streak of more than two since October and by far the hottest stretch under coach Dale Hunter.
One trip to California, and the Capitals don’t feel so golden. They went 0-2, falling to San Jose and Los Angeles by 5-2 scores.
“Our record all year proves that we’re not playing well enough on the road. When you’re in another building, you’re going to have to play harder,” Hunter said of Washington, which fell to 7-12-1 away from Verizon Center. “We’ve got a good record at home [14-5-1] but not on the road. And that’s why we have to play harder on the road.”
Finding a solution to road woes will have to wait, thanks to a four-game homestand that starts Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But with this game marking the midway point of the season, a zero-point road trip feels like a precipitous fall from where this team was last week.
“It’s disappointing,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We’re looking at the standings right now with games in hand on Florida. … We have these chances to win these games and to not do it, it’s tough.”
The Capitals have two games in hand on the Southeast Division-leading Panthers, but the gap stands at six points. And Washington is in third place, also trailing the Winnipeg Jets by a point.
Things didn’t seem so bad a week ago, with Nicklas Backstrom on the ice feeling good and the Caps within striking distance of Florida, which appeared to be fading. Losses to the Sharks and Kings, with Backstrom out (head injury) and Mike Green (groin tightness) leaving during the San Jose game, have them reeling.
Monday night at Staples Center showed what can happen when Washington’s defense falters, allowing the offensively impotent Kings to light up goalie Tomas Vokoun to the seemingly nonstop strains of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”
“We made mistakes, and when we need a big save it’s not there,” defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. “We can’t just focus on the goalies to save the puck all the time. It’s five guys on the ice. Mistakes happens, but usually the team who make less mistakes is going to win the hockey game.”
Numerous mistakes were made, some leading directly to goals. Hamrlik decried lack of “enthusiasm” on the defensive end, something Hendricks argued was more a matter of failed execution.
Either way, that listless performance made the four-game win streak seem like it occurred ages ago.
“I think we have to get back to what we did the last four games before these two games here,” said forward Marcus Johansson, who scored both goals Monday night. “We spent too much time in our own end tonight. … We have to get better at that.”
Some players disputed the notion that complacency had set in after a few wins. There’s no doubt Backstrom’s absence played a role, but Hendricks noted that, “I just don’t think we gave it our best stuff” in Los Angeles.
That may be true, but the hardest part may be that there is no quick fix.
“I think we always try to work our hardest, and sometimes it doesn’t work,” Johansson said. “It’s very tough because we’re trying our best and it’s not working. I don’t know what it is.”