Dale Hunter’s first month behind Washington’s bench ends tomorrow, but there’s not much to celebrate for the Capitals who continue to stumble along like a borderline playoff team instead of a Stanley Cup favorite.

Monday night’s 4-2 loss in Buffalo dropped the Caps to 5-6-1 under Hunter. Under predecessor Bruce Boudreau, Washington was 12-9-1, a record that included a superb 7-0 start and an ugly 3-7-1 finish that cost the four-time Southeast Division title-winning coach his job on Nov. 27.

Washington has been a different team under the more defensive-minded Hunter than it was under the run-and-gun Boudreau. The Caps have scored just 30 goals in their 12 games since the coaching change, as many as they netted during their 7-0 start. But they’ve also allowed just 32, only one more than they surrendered during Boudreau’s final seven games.

However, are they any better off? Washington is in 11th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference, trailing Winnipeg for crying out loud, along with usual bottom-feeders Florida, Ottawa and Toronto.

A year ago after an early eight-game nosedive, Boudreau and general manager George McPhee begged the boys to play more responsibly. They responded with a 5-1 tear – outscoring their foes 19-9 — that ended with the Winter Classic victory at Pittsburgh over the hated Penguins. The ship righted, the Caps cruised to their accustomed spot atop the Eastern Conference standings before melting down in the second round against Tampa Bay.

A month into the Hunter era, the Caps are playing more responsibly, allowing 2.67 goals per game, but they’re only scoring 2.5 per game. They haven’t fallen off the rails as they did under Boudreau last December or this November but nor have they ever really found a groove.

Here’s their game-by-game record under Hunter: L, L, W, L, W, W, L, W, L, W, OT(L), L. That adds up to a lot of ZZZZZZ.

Winning is more important than excitement as the high-scoring Caps have learned in each of the last four springs, but if you’re not going to win, you had better be exciting. As the Redskins, Wizards and Nats can attest, a boring loser is the worst possible product.

Over the next five weeks, the Caps play 15 games including two against the Penguins (who knocked them out of the 2009 playoffs), two against the Lightning and single dates with defending Stanley Cup champion Boston and Montreal (who shocked them in the 2010 playoffs).

Eight of the 15 games are at Verizon Center, including four straight against the Penguins, Lightning, Carolina and the Islanders.

By the end of the 15-game stretch on Jan. 31, the season will be 60 percent completed and Hunter will have been in command for more than two months.

If the Caps are still bumping along on the playoff bubble at that point, it will be fair to say that tuning out Boudreau’s message wasn’t the only problem.

Two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin (12 goals, 25 points, minus-8 defensive rating in 34 games), sniper Alexander Semin (seven goals in 31 games) and their compatriots would have the final two months-plus of the regular season to prove to McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis that it wouldn’t be right to blow up the apparently flawed roster and start over with a group of hungrier, less self-centered players.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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