Alex Ovechkin, right, hasn’t been his superstar self in quite some time. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

What the Washington Capitals most need won’t come before Monday’s NHL trading deadline. When an underachieving team is embarrassed on a potential season-defining trip, a change in thinking is the first place to start.

It’s not about picking up another defenseman for the stretch run or adding scoring punch from the wing. After the Capitals were thoroughly outplayed, going 1-3 while struggling to remain in playoff contention, management should acknowledge that the window for this group, as it’s currently constituted, has closed.

Granted, the Capitals have had major injury problems. And with 22 games remaining, Washington, which hosts Montreal on Friday, is just two points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. But in the fifth year of the Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Alexander Semin-Mike Green era, the Capitals were supposed to be in a much better place.

Now, a franchise marked by its recent failure in the postseason is struggling even to get that far. The injuries have left the team short-handed; inconsistent effort seems to indicate a deeper regression.

“We had huge expectations,” veteran winger Mike Knuble said. “It hasn’t played out quite the way we had all planned.”

Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green have provided the foundation for successful regular seasons. The Capitals became relevant again, in large part, because of their talented core four. But that’s not enough to stay the course anymore, especially not after the repeated playoff stumbles and Washington’s current struggles.

Backstrom’s concussion was an immeasurable setback. The Capitals lost one of the league’s best playmakers at a time when Ovechkin’s scoring has dropped and Green, again, has been slowed because of injuries.

That’s a triple blow few, if any, teams are in position to absorb and continue to perform at a high level.

Could Backstrom eventually return in top form? Sure. The reality is, though, there’s no way to know. Just ask Pittsburgh, which is still dealing with Sidney Crosby’s post-concussion problems.

The past two seasons, Ovechkin, who recently suffered a lower-body injury, just hasn’t been the same “Great 8.” The Capitals built everything around Ovechkin and rely so heavily on him. They haven’t gotten anything close to his best for too long. If Ovechkin truly wants to win championships, there’s no time like the present to show it.

With their top lineup together, Washington started 7-0. Still, it’s unacceptable that the Capitals, currently 10th in the East with 63 points, have played so poorly without their stars.

What about those offseason moves General Manager George McPhee made to help Washington finally push through in the playoffs? Why is no one picking up the slack?

“We hear from everybody,” defenseman Karl Alzner said about criticism of the Capitals. “We’re not deaf. We’re not blind.

“We read everything. We see everything. We know what people are saying. That’s not a very nice feeling for us.”

Former coach Bruce Boudreau wasn’t the Capitals’ only problem, which was clear at the time of his firing. Coaches, however, are often fired when teams fail to meet expectations, so Boudreau had to go.

Coach Dale Hunter, who replaced Boudreau, apparently hasn’t communicated well with some of his players. Also, Hunter has been highly critical of goaltender Tomas Vokoun, another offseason acquisition, so the Capitals have significant off-ice issues, as well.

Remember owner Ted Leonsis saying the Capitals would qualify for the playoffs for 10 to 15 years? Sure, Washington’s playoff streak could continue. Even so, this can’t be what Leonsis envisioned.

“You gotta embrace the challenge,” center Jeff Halpern said. “And it’s gonna be challenge for us.”

The Capitals’ most recent trip — four games in six days with a sense of urgency — was supposed to be a measuring stick. Perhaps it was.

Washington opened with an inspiring victory over Florida — and then collapsed. A loss the next night to Tampa Bay, which trails Washington in the standings, was bad.

A 5-0 loss against Carolina on Monday was the low point of the season — the Capitals at least hope it doesn’t get any worse. Carolina is last in the East. Goalie Cam Ward is the Hurricanes’ only true star — and he sat out because of an injury. Hunter made his feelings clear about Vokoun’s shaky outing in the trip-closing loss to Ottawa.

“The last two games, we weren’t ready to play,” Alzner said. “We weren’t prepared enough mentally.”

Regardless of the sport, preparation falls on the coach’s shoulders. That’s Hunter’s area. His defensive-oriented system hasn’t worked well, and the Capitals also aren’t scoring enough — the worst possible combination.

Together, Leonsis and McPhee constructed a team that was once at least exciting. Now, they need to do more than tinker at the periphery to build one that’s actually capable of winning.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to