COLUMBUS, Ohio — It began as a slump, a simple run of bad luck in late December as the Washington Capitals lost three of their four final games before the NHL’s holiday break. Players believed the slide could be easily shaken off, but now it has absorbed an entire month of the season.
From Dec. 17 to Jan. 17, a stretch that was punctuated by a disheartening 5-1 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, Washington has gone just 4-6-5, earning only 13 of a possible 30 points.
If the Capitals’ performances weren’t enough to cause concern over these past few weeks, that their downturn coincided with the rest of the Metropolitan Division finding its stride certainly should. After Saturday night’s games, Washington sits precariously in a tie for fourth place with 52 points — one of five teams separated by only four points in the division.
“We have to start winning,” center Marcus Johansson said flatly. “Teams are catching up and going by us. We have to start winning games. We can’t keep losing because it’s not going to get us anywhere. Everyone’s doing what they can to win games, and it’s not going our way. So we need to find a way to make it go our way.”
Before this tailspin, Washington held a four-point lead on second place in the Metropolitan, 10 back of the first-place Penguins. As the Capitals foundered — they’ve had a pair of four-game losing streaks in this stretch — nearly every other team in the division went on a run of success, giving the Metropolitan the tightly contested standings that many anticipated when the NHL realigned before this season.
Looking at the same month-long timeframe that encompassed Washington’s struggles, the Philadelphia Flyers, who have found consistency after hiring Coach Craig Berube to replace the fired Peter Laviolette in early October, and New York Islanders, who had been all but forgotten in last place, both went 10-4-1 to earn 21 points.
The Rangers, who host Washington on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, snagged 20 points with a 9-4-2 run and finally appear to be establishing an identity in Alain Vigneault’s first year behind the bench. Then there are upstarts New Jersey and Columbus, which captured 19 and 18 points respectively to create an even more crowded picture.
The only Metropolitan team that didn’t record more points than Washington during the last month was the Carolina Hurricanes, who went 5-5-2 but aren’t out of the equation either.
“We’d obviously like to be in the situation where we could just worry about ourselves,” Troy Brouwer said. “But the reality of the situation is the standings are changing every single night, and we’re not doing ourselves any favors.”
Coach Adam Oates isn’t to the point where he’s about to panic when he looks at the standings.
“Honestly, that doesn’t matter to me. There’s still a lot of hockey left,” Oates said. “If you don’t play good, you’re not going to be there. You’ve gotta play good, simple as that.”
While there certainly are plenty of games remaining, the Capitals need to find their bearings if they’re going to keep up with the pack.
Washington has 11 games left, including five against divisional foes, before the NHL goes on a nearly three-week hiatus for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. By then the Capitals will have played 59 games, or 72 percent of their season, with a difficult March schedule — 13 of the 15 games are against teams currently in a playoff position — looming afterward and no way to tell how the Games will have impacted three vital parts of the lineup in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson.
Veteran winger Joel Ward knows the Capitals aren’t in a good spot but takes a reasoned and simple approach to the team’s dilemma at this stage: Win and the rest will fall into place. But even he knows that’s easier said than done recently.
“If you’re winning, you’re okay. It’s that simple,” Ward said. “Regardless who we play we need to win, whether it’s San Jose or Columbus or New York or whoever. We just need to find a way to win games again. Once we can do that, the standings will take care of themselves.”