by David Elfin

There’s serious trouble in (Potomac) River City when it comes to the local hockey team. Maybe Capitals coach Adam Oates’ job is even in jeopardy after five straight defeats and nine in the last 11 games.

The Caps, who seemed to be in such good shape after Alex Ovechkin scored four goals in a 6-5 comeback victory over Tampa Bay on Dec. 10 that extended their winning streak to three games and raised their record to 17-12-2, are just 5-7-6 in the nearly six weeks since after last night’s 4-1 loss at the New York Rangers. Washington’s 22-19-8 record translates into 52 points, five fewer than it earned in winning the title in the weak Southeast Division last spring.

There has been no chance for weeks that the Caps would catch front-running Pittsburgh – whom they trail by 18 points in the new Metropolitan Division. But their current tailspin has dropped them from fifth in the Eastern Conference to 10th, which is out of the playoffs. If New Jersey wins tomorrow and Washington loses to Ottawa, the Caps would fall to 12th place behind the Devils and Senators. Only Carolina, the New York Islanders, Florida and hapless Buffalo (which beat Washington twice in the past 22 days) would trail them.

Oates’ crew has been living dangerously all season. Its reliance on the power play and shootouts has turned into a negative during the slump.

Although it’s still the NHL’s second-ranked unit, Washington’s power play was in a 0-for-14 drought, its longest during Oates’ year-plus behind the bench, before Ovechkin’s extra-man goal proved to be the visitors’ only tally last night and it came after Washington fell behind 3-0 in the first period.

“We took three penalties in the offensive zone,” Oates lamented after his team allowed two quick power play scores, including a 5-on-3 goal for the third time in nine games after surrendering just one during the first 40. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The aforementioned dramatic triumph over the Lightning improved the Caps to 7-2 in shootouts. But losses in back-to-back shootouts with the Sabres eight days ago and with powerful San Jose two days later dropped Washington to 1-4 in its last five such contests. The Caps are just 12-19 in games decided in regulation.

While Ovechkin leads the league with 35 goals, none of his teammates have scored more than 13 and only Joel Ward, Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom join The Great Eight in double figures.

Washington’s defense ranks 23rd out of the NHL’s 30 teams as Oates juggles three goalies. Rookie Philipp Grubauer has started five of the past seven games with formerly invisible man Michal Neuvirth playing the others. Braden Holtby, who was between the pipes for all 21 playoff games the past two springs, has started just once during the past four weeks, a disastrous effort in which he allowed five goals on just 11 shots in a loss at Minnesota on Jan. 4. However, Grubauer, whose teammates have scored all of 13 goals in his nine defeats, was yanked early in favor of Holtby in each of the last two losses.

“The worst thing that we can do right now is pull away from our identity,” forward Brooks Laich, the only Cap remaining from before the 2004-05 NHL lockout, said after last Friday’s ugly 5-1 defeat at Columbus. “We talk about making details matter and tonight we lost almost every area. There are so many little things in the course of a hockey game that add up to winning.”

That loss, which came against a team that Washington had beaten earlier by 4-1 and 4-3 (in overtime) counts, didn’t sit well with Oates or with captain Ovechkin.

“You have to be ready, 100 percent,” Ovechkin said. “All the team today – including me – was not ready. It’s shame on us.”

Oates, who had praised his players after their consecutive 1-goal defeats to the Sharks and Penguins even though they blew a trio of leads in the latter game, was pretty frustrated after they played so poorly against the Blue Jackets.

“You can’t let a game get away and be that easy,” Oates said. “You can’t play like that. It’s bad hockey. [We were] mentally not ready. … Guys are over-trying because they panic. … You make a mistake on one end and you over-try on the other end to try to figure it out. At the end of the first period we turned it over twice [because we were] tired at the end of shifts. Part of our plan is, if you don’t have a play, you’ve got to get it deep and we didn’t. And they score a second goal. Now you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

The Caps certainly are. Last night’s game was their third straight on the road. After Ottawa – a team against which Washington is 0-4 under Oates – visits Verizon Center, they play five in a row away from home over eight days, all against Eastern rivals. Once that brutal stretch is over, the season will be two thirds complete, leaving just 27 games to decide whether a seventh straight playoff appearance will happen for a franchise that has won just three postseason series since its lone trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.

After the loss to the Rangers, which finished a weekend from hell in which the Caps were outscored 9-2, Ovechkin said, “What am I going to say? ‘Wake up everybody’ or something like that? We say too much. Go out there and do it.”

No arguing with that.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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