A little more than a month ago, the Washington Capitals called a players-only meeting in search of a wake-up call. Off to the fourth-worst start in franchise history at 2-8-1, they sat in last place in the NHL, five points out of a playoff spot.
They've gone 8-5-0 in the 13 games since the meeting, at times showing enough noticeable improvement to suggest that things were finally starting to come together under first-year coach Adam Oates.
But after losing to the Islanders and Rangers this weekend, the Capitals have little to show for their modest progress. Halfway through the season, Washington is actually further from a playoff position through 24 games than it was after the rocky start in the first 11.
The Capitals, who play nine of their next 12 games on the road (where they have just three wins), face a harsh reality in the Eastern Conference standings. They are seven points out of a playoff spot and trail Southeast Division-leading Carolina by eight. Wins in a home-and-home against the Hurricanes tonight and Thursday would go a long way toward preserving their hopes of catching up, while regulation losses would spell trouble for any chance of capturing the division title and the automatic postseason berth that goes with it.
"We can't squander the points that we need to catch Carolina," Troy Brouwer said. "They've been winning; they've been playing really good hockey as of late. It's tough to catch those guys. We've got to make the best of it when we have opportunities."
The scarcity of those opportunities is what made the Capitals' regression to their early-season bad habits against the Islanders and Rangers this weekend particularly discouraging.
No team operates perfectly, but for Washington to be undone by the familiar antagonists of penalty troubles, lack of positional soundness and sloppy neutral-zone play smacks of undoing the progress at the strides it showed when it won five of the six previous games.
"Terrible start, and we've been getting better ever since. This weekend's a bit of a step back, but I think you can still see our game where we're playing a lot better," Eric Fehr said. "We didn't play a 60-minute effort this weekend, but we had spurts where we were real good."
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the losses was that Washington's top players were the most culpable. Against the Islanders it was leading scorer Mike Ribeiro, who complained after receiving a high-sticking call and earned an extra penalty resulting in a momentum-sapping four-minute penalty kill for Washington. It was a power-play goal by John Tavares with Ribeiro in the box that paved the way for a 5-2 New York win.
In Sunday's 4-1 loss to the Rangers, mistakes by Alex Ovechkin resulted in three goals against. the Capitals need more from their captain, who has one goal in seven games since recording a hat trick Feb.23.
"Tough losses, but refresh our mind, forget these losses," Ovechkin said. "I think it's going to be biggest game for us [playing the Hurricanes on Tuesday tonight]. It's kind of what we have to do. Beat the 'Canes and get back on track."