- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- There is faith and there is reality.
In the ever-darkening world of the Washington Capitals, the two continue to drift further and further apart.
A staggeringly bad start to this season got even worse Thursday night as the Caps surrendered five Pittsburgh goals in a 12:39 span in the second period en route to a 5-2 thrashing at the hands of their arch rival.
The loss, as grisly as any of the Caps' eight this season, marked the second time in four days that they were spanked by the Penguins following a 6-3 loss at home on Sunday.
In the Caps' locker room, the players were suitably chastened, as you would expect from a team that is now 2-8-1.
Troy Brouwer suggested the team wasn't mentally prepared to play.
"I agree," offered captain Alex Ovechkin.
"Yeah, no emotions. Nothing."
Before Thursday's game, rookie head coach Adam Oates talked with enthusiasm about the direction he felt his team was headed. In spite of the losses, he felt they were not being dominated, that they were a few key saves and some bounces from being a better team, certainly a team with more points.
Keeping the faith will be harder after Thursday's offering.
"Tonight was just not a good enough hockey game," defenseman Karl Alzner said.
It marked just the fourth time in 11 games that Washington scored first. They are now 0-4-0 in those games.
Still, for 20 minutes at least the Caps looked like they might be able to marry some of that good faith with actual point production.
Oates pointed out that the team did exactly as a road team needs to, limiting the Pens to 10 shots through the first 30 minutes of the game.
But they could not take advantage of a listless Penguins team to add to that early lead and, in the second period, the roof -- indeed perhaps the entire season -- caved in on them in startling fashion.
The Caps and their 23rd-ranked penalty killing unit allowed Evgeni Malkin to tie the game 10 seconds after Alzner was whistled for holding.
It was a call Alzner did not like, but Oates said those are the penalties you have to survive.
"We didn't," Oates said.
Hard to blame the coach, given that shoddy goaltending has been among the many deficiencies displayed by the Capitals this season.
But Braden Holtby didn't fare that much better as he allowed three goals on 12 Pittsburgh shots, two of which were on the power play.
"Similar to the other night, we kind of leaked a little oil for five minutes after that [second goal]. That's all you need in the NHL right now," Oates said.
Had this game turned solely on the goaltending, well, maybe you could find some speck of optimism moving forward, some reason to keep on keeping the faith. But that wasn't the case at all.
In fact, the second period painfully illustrated just how deep the hole is the Caps have dug themselves and why the digging may not yet be done.
The Penguins, winners of five straight now, managed just five shots in the first but rededicated themselves in the second. The Caps, meanwhile, seemed bewildered as the Pens took to the attack.
Reinforcing the old chestnut about your best players playing their best, the Penguins' stars delivered in bunches.
Malkin had a goal and two assists in the second. James Neal had a goal and an assist in the five-goal second. Chris Kunitz, who scored four against Washington on Sunday, added two assists, and Sidney Crosby added a goal and two assists to extend his point streak to six games.
The Caps' best players?
After picking up an assist on Ribeiro's goal, Ovechkin scored a third-period, power-play goal to make the score 5-2. It was Ovechkin's third of the year, and he still has not scored an even-strength goal on the season. On a partial break midway through the third with a chance to pull the Caps to within two goals, Ovechkin sailed a backhand high over the net.
Nicklas Backstrom? The gifted center was a ghost on this night. If this was the exception to the rule, it would be one thing. But with just one goal on the season (he has seven assists), Backstrom is nowhere near the elite player he was.
Too little from too many.
The Capitals allowed the Penguins four power-play opportunities on the night, and the Pens capitalized on three of them. The Caps entered the game 23rd in the league in the number of minor penalties assessed. The Penguins? They took three minors (one was offsetting) and all in the third period when the game out was of reach. They ranked 10th in the NHL in the number of minor penalties assessed against them.
If discipline is a function of focus and preparation, then maybe Brouwer has a point.
How does a team arrest the kinds of mistakes that allowed the floodgates to open so broadly?
"I wish I had an answer for you," Green said.
Ribeiro talked about dedication to preparation, working harder, preparing in practice, preparing better before games.
But shouldn't such preparation be a matter of course for professional players?
Perhaps most distressing for an organization that has been to the postseason five straight seasons is that, as the game was slipping away during the middle frame, there was no resolve, no sign of being able to arrest the game's shifting momentum.
In the locker room, the term "rock bottom" was bandied about.
"Hopefully, we don't have to go any lower than this," Alzner said.
Sadly, Thursday's loss gives no indication that this team has fully plumbed to the depths it might sink.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance