For Washington Capitals, it’s still early, but it’s getting late

If you listen to Coach Adam Oates, the Washington Capitals are playing good, solid hockey. If you listen to the somber players in the locker room after Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, the Capitals are deflated and must find a way to win.

The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in the middle. Oates’s glass-half-full optimism in the wake of a 6-3 loss that left the Capitals as the worst team in the Eastern Conference may be jarring, but his playing days aren’t so far behind that he needs a Betamax to watch his highlights. He has been in his own share of somber locker rooms and knows what the players need to hear from the coach, at least publicly.

His charges, nine games into his new system — and aren’t Caps fans sick of that word, after three in 18 months? — don’t seem convinced.

“We need to get better,” Nick Backstrom said. “We need to win hockey games.”

Just as the truth is somewhere in the middle, so is the second period, and it has proven to be the Caps’ stumbling block so often it should be sent off for tripping. The Caps are being outworked in the second period by a whopping 40 shots on goal (102-62). Not coincidentally, they’re being outscored in the second period, 13-6.

The Post Sports Live crew wonder whether there is a direct correlation between Alex Ovechkin’s individual goal-scoring and the Capitals’ wins and losses. (Post Sports Live)

“We need to be strong mentally and play 60 minutes,” said Mike Ribeiro, a glass-half-full Cap whose third-period power-play goal kept him in the team lead with 10 points. “We’ve been playing 40 solid, or 45.”

Sunday, they entered the second period trailing 2-1, and exited trailing 5-2, due in part to the fact that they put just four shots on goal despite two power-play opportunities. The Penguins had nine shots in that period — but put three in the net.

Goalie Braden Holtby, last year’s darling, has had a rocky season, to say the least. A team with two young, capable goaltenders would be tailor-made for the short haul, a.k.a the 48-game season. But while Michal Neuvirth has played well, Holtby has struggled. Verizon Center rang with loud cheers every time the Penguins got one past him. (Is Stan Kasten working in the ticket office?)

The result of the second-period sag: Monday morning, the Caps had a mere five points, lowest in the Eastern Conference and second fewest in the league to Calgary, which has four in three fewer games. Their goal differential (-12) was dead last. Washington is 0-3-1 when trailing after one period, and has the same record when trailing after two. That’s contributed to a 2-6-1 record.

It’s early, of course, or it feels early — nine games, such a small sample size. And yet, nearly 20 percent of their games are in the books, and the Caps have just two wins. Playing 48 games in 99 days is not for the faint of heart — that’s nearly a game every other day — but every other team in the league faces the same bumpy road due to the lockout. So while a slow start under a new coach and a new system might be easy to overcome in a full season, it will be much harder this year.

Teams that don’t have a rocky start, that don’t experience a protracted losing streak or suffer a key injury, teams whose players came back from the lockout knowing exactly what they were doing — those are the teams that will flourish. The Caps are not one of those teams.

Oddly, the nicest thing said about the Caps came not from the home locker room or even the coach, but from one of the visitors.

The Capitals “are a dangerous hockey team — they showed that today,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. “They created a lot of chances, and we definitely at certain points had to play good defense but I think that’s kind of the make-up of their team. You expect that they’re going to create a lot of opportunities.”

Certainly Oates expects that.

“Unless I see something crazy in the video that I didn’t notice,” Oates said, “[the Penguins] had no chances that we didn’t give them. None.” His post-game remarks were summed up nicely in this sentence: “I think the guys are playing good hockey.”

That may be, but Oates must sell that version of the truth to “the guys,” and soon. Time — and the second period — is not on their side.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/
hamilton.

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