Predators center Ryan Johansen and left wing Viktor Arvidsson elebrate after a goal past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. (Christopher Hanewinckel/Usa Today Sports)
Sports columnist

Barry Svrluga

It took all of 17 seconds for Thursday night's Washington Capitals game in Denver to smell putrid, because that's precisely when Colorado forward Gabriel Landeskog poked a puck past reeling goaltender Philipp Grubauer to put the Avalanche up for good. Nice trip, boys, losses by a combined 12-5 at Nashville and Colorado. You've got four straight home games coming up. Fix it, or . . . what?

The Capitals spent much time talking about how things would be different this season. Don't expect a Presidents' Trophy, they said. Don't expect a division title, a top seed, statistically overwhelming performances, any of it. Expect — and somehow embrace — the struggles.

But preparing a fan base — and, by now, let's be honest, a spoiled fan base — for that kind of bumpy ride and then enduring it are two different things. Turns out rolling over those rocks in the road hurts your backside, even if you knew they were coming.

The Caps have played 20 games, almost exactly a quarter of their schedule. They have won 10 times and lost 10 times (though one of those was in overtime, so they secured a point). They have allowed more goals than they have scored. If the season ended right now — which, clearly, it doesn't — they would squeeze into the playoffs with the second wild-card spot in the East.

Feels different, doesn't it?

"I'm like everybody else around here," Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said this week, before the two disasters. "You're a little frustrated. You're used to a certain standard. We had a good run. We got spoiled with a high level of play the last two years. There's a give-and-take there."

Spoken by the general manager, but apply it to the locker room and the fan base, too.

What we have to remind ourselves of, with three-quarters of the season remaining, is that this new team can't be evaluated by its old standards. That's the balance this Caps team faces, such a change from the Cup-or-bust days of the recent past. By what standards should they be evaluated? Certainly, losses of 6-3 to the Predators and an absolutely noncompetitive 6-2 clunker against the Avalanche aren't acceptable. Not last year. But not this year, either.

"We have to look at ourselves and make changes," captain Alex Ovechkin told The Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan and other reporters after the Denver debacle.

"I'm absolutely disappointed, angry, a lot of different emotions," Coach Barry Trotz said afterward. "I expected a lot better."

That's the in-the-moment frustration stuff, and it's healthy. Realistic aspirations for an 82-game regular season aside, there is room to be incensed after the two most recent performances. And it can make you think about what it was like last year, when the Caps were 13-5-2 after 20 games, or the year before, when they were 14-5-1. By comparison — and we have to stop comparing, but it's hard — 10-9-1 feels like failing, even if it's really not.

And it's only natural to think: What if there could have been one more year with the band back together, with defenseman Karl Alzner (gone to Montreal) and veteran Justin Williams (gone to Carolina) and forward Marcus Johansson (traded to New Jersey)?

"You miss things the guys we had did well," MacLellan said. "Alzner on the PK. Williams's presence. Johansson on the power play. And you kind of say, 'If so-and-so was here, that would've been better.' "

Stop that. Stop it, because it's not what this season is about.

This season is about the development of rookie defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, about seeing whether they can be a part of — indeed, be central pieces of — a juggernaut in the future. It's about evaluating the very significant bets placed on winger T.J. Oshie and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who were both paid to stay here long-term and must be part of the solution both now and later. It's about getting backup goaltender Grubauer right, not just because he was in net in Denver, but because he has lost all six of his starts and he needs to turn it around if he's going to be the valuable trade piece the Caps hoped he would be when the season started.

"The young defensemen have played well overall," MacLellan said. "It's been going the right way. I think the big concern is when it doesn't [go the right way], when it starts to go the other way. Do they lose confidence?"

That point would be now. Before the Caps left for Nashville and Colorado, they had won five of six — with the only loss coming in Buffalo on the second night of a back-to-back, a bugaboo thus far for this Washington team, which is 0-4 and has been outscored 17-5 in such situations. After the struggles of this week, it can be hard to remember the Capitals just thumped rival Pittsburgh at home last Friday, then squeezed out a win Sunday over Edmonton in what could have been a letdown game.

Now comes an amazing stretch that could determine the course of the season: nine of the next 10 at home. And it's worth pointing out that, entering Friday night's schedule, Tampa Bay had separated itself somewhat in the East, but no other team in the conference had more than 26 points. Indeed, the Caps were one of nine teams with between 20 and 26 points.

They're right there on the edge. With improvement, they're in the middle of it all. That's all you can ask from this group, this year at this time. We were told, before it all started, it was going to be different this time around. Now that it actually is different, now that it actually feels different, we can't act surprised.

"I always thought the second half would be where we'd know better what we are," MacLellan said.

In the recent past, when the second half arrived, the Caps knew who they were. This season, there can be frustration in the moment. But there must be joy in the discovery, too.