Carolina's Derek Joslin tussles with Washington's Matt Hendricks during the second period. (Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press)

For days, the Washington Capitals have discussed a desperation to play themselves back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. When it came time to back those words up with action against the worst team in the conference, however, they came up with a grossly inadequate showing.

The Capitals fell, 5-0, to the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center in a game riddled with turnovers, sloppy passes, ill-advised plays, odd-man rushes and a lack of any tenacity as they squandered a game that, if won, would have pushed them into a playoff position.

Rather than taking advantage of that opportunity, the game seemed out of reach from the start. Washington remains in 10th place following the loss with 63 points, one out of eighth, and sits in third in the Southeast Division standings with 23 games to play in its 2011-12 regular season.

“Embarrassing effort, right from the start,” Troy Brouwer said. “We weren’t ready to play. Gave up chances, gave the puck away, didn’t get the puck in deep. Just all around embarrassing.”

Carolina entered the contest shorthanded. Top goalie and former Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward was out with a lower body injury. Rather than immediately challenging seldom-used backup Justin Peters, Washington gave up a pair of goals in the first 5 minutes 9 seconds.

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters (35) looks for the loose puck with teammate Jamie McBain (4) and Washington Capitals' Jeff Halpern (15) nearby during the second period. (Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press)

By game’s end, all Peters needed for his first NHL shutout was 17 saves.

It marked his first shutout at any level since Dec. 11, 2009, when he shut out the Hershey Bears while playing for the Albany River Rats of the AHL.

Hurricanes rookie defenseman Justin Faulk kicked off the rout with a power-play goal 3:41 into the first, making Monday’s tilt the fifth consecutive game that Washington has given up the first goal.

Only 1:28 later, Carolina made it 2-0 on a rush created by a bad turnover at the Capitals’ blue line. Marcus Johansson was carrying the puck when Jiri Tlusty knocked him down to gain possession.

Mike Green couldn’t cover the Hurricanes’ center quickly enough to prevent Tlusty from passing to Eric Staal on the right wing boards and creating a 3-on-2 rush. Staal centered to Anthony Stewart, who beat Tomas Vokoun on Carolina’s seventh shot of the game.

It was the final shot Vokoun faced, as Coach Dale Hunter pulled the veteran netminder immediately after the tally and brought in Michal Neuvirth in an effort to shake up the team.

“Change momentum more than anything and slow down the game and get Neuvy in and just change momentum,” Hunter said when asked why he gave Vokoun the hook so quickly.

The alteration didn’t have the desired effect, as the Capitals were decidedly flat for the duration of the contest.

The trends illustrated in those first five-plus minutes, where Washington didn’t protect the puck, failed to chase it down to gain possession or win battles along the boards, extended long after the change in net.

A turnover in the offensive zone late in the period, caused by Alex Ovechkin knocking the puck off Brouwer’s stick and breaking up the start of a cycle, sent the Hurricanes the other direction on another odd-man rush. Andreas Nodl fired a one-timer past Neuvirth with 29 seconds left before the intermission to make it 3-0.

By the end of the first, in addition to trailing by three, Washington had been outshot 16-5 with only three players — Mike Knuble (2), Alexander Semin (2) and Marcus Johansson — managing to shoot on Peters.

“You want to do something [to respond] but you never even have a chance,” Jeff Halpern said. “We were bad at the beginning of the game, bad in the middle of the game, bad at the end of the game. That’s really all there is. We were just bad all night.”

In the final 40 minutes, although Brouwer and Matt Hendricks (twice) would drop the gloves out of frustration the Capitals never showed an ability to fight their way back into the contest as a group.

On their earliest opportunity to get on the scoreboard in the second, a power play with Derek Joslin in the box for elbowing, the Capitals instead gave up another goal. Dennis Wideman fell down at the point, springing Staal on a breakaway. The Carolina captain beat Neuvirth five-hole to make it 4-0 5:56 into the second.

Staal scored again 5:51 into the third, when no one covered him back door on the right-hand side of the net.

All told, the Capitals were outhustled, outshot 40-17 and out-hit 24-16 in their most lopsided loss since Nov. 19, when they fell 7-1 at Toronto. These are the types of games the players know they can’t afford if they want to reach the postseason.

“This time of year you’ve got to be playing good hockey, to come out and just stink right out of the gate — play sloppy, not characteristic of how we’re gonna play — it’s very disappointing for our group,” Knuble said. “That being said, you can’t feel sorry. There’s another game. We’re still in the thick of things, we still have a chance to have a .500 trip with a win in Ottawa. It’s hard to say move on — forget, move on, but the next task is a big game and hopefully a big win in Ottawa.”

Capitals notes: Rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov was scratched because of an illness, according to the team. . . . Alex Ovechkin missed the final 6:02 of the second period with what the team said was a skate problem but he was seen limping after the game. He returned to the game for the start of the third period, finishing with 15:43 played. Brooks Laich didn’t play the last 10:23 and it’s possible he aggravated the left knee injury he suffered Feb. 2 against Boston.