The Capitals “just weren’t prepared to play” goaltender Braden Holtby said. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

What began as a hiccup has evolved into a nagging ailment for the Washington Capitals, who can’t seem to get out of their own way in the first period.

Even before their latest case study in poor starts, in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames, Capitals players recognized the importance of playing from the outset with the poise and focus they’ve shown late in games. But that knowledge didn’t change anything in the opening 20 minutes at the Saddledome.

“We’re taking too long to get into games,” Coach Adam Oates said. “That’s a fact.”

Washington stood a step behind play by the Flames, who successfully implemented a straightforward, no-frills game plan to hem the visitors in the defensive zone. Thanks to a few lost battles on the boards, turnovers and an inability to properly track defensive assignments, Calgary took a 2-0 lead in less than eight minutes.

“Just weren’t prepared to play. It was simple as that. Calgary was prepared to play the game and we weren’t. That’s why we lost the game,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who was pulled 12:48 into the contest with Washington down 3-1 in an effort to spark the team.

“It’s nothing to do with systems, it’s nothing to do with the coaching staff. It’s what we do as professional athletes, professional hockey players, is prepare yourself,” Holtby said when asked what needed to be corrected. “I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job in here. You can’t single people out in that but as a group we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing in order to prepare better.”

Just 11 games into the season, it wasn’t the first time a Capitals player criticized the team’s preparation. On Saturday, Holtby wasn’t alone in his assessment.

“I thought we were — not just right off the bat –I thought we were slow for a while,” John Carlson said. “Took us a while to get our legs and we had a few good starts but it’s something that we need to work on.”

Carlson went on to say “preparation is big” especially with regard to anticipating how an opponent plans to attack the game. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Calgary, as the home, team, came out hustling and focused on moving up the ice. The Capitals should have been able to counteract it earlier than the second period, when they finally showed glimpses of what they’re capable of and closed the gap to one goal.

“When we play right that’s what it looks like,” Oates said. “We put ourselves back in the game.”

That is what has made the Capitals’ poor starts appear so similar to each other: The absence of the their basic game plan that has allowed them to make late-game rallies. Instead, they are unable to escape their own zone for shifts at a time and, with an abundance of turnovers and unorganized play in their own end, allow an opponent to dictate the game.

Washington has been outscored 12-6 in the first period this season. While it’s not all about generating offense, there’s little doubt the Capitals can make better decisions to help keep the play out of their own end. Take the top line, for example, which was held without a point vs. Calgary for the first time in four games. Alex Ovechkin dismissed the suggestion that the Flames held insight into limiting them, saying instead that they derailed their own efforts.

“We just put ourselves in that kind of position where we have puck in neutral zone but don’t make a play,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to make right decision. If you dump the puck it has to be right to dump the puck. If you make a play you have to make the right play.”

The Capitals have shown they can be a dominant team at times but have sabotaged themselves by repeatedly using their best efforts to make up for early deficits rather than gaining control from the start.

“It’s unacceptable for a team like us. We’re a great team and everyone in there knows that we need to be better off the starts,” Carlson said. “You see when our game is on it’s so tough to stop us. I think it will be a more combined effort all around, everybody chipping in whenever they can to make sure we start that off right from the puck drop and not wait for anything to happen.”