New Capitals head coach Adam Oates was kind in describing his team as “probably a little bit fragile “following a horrible 4-1 home loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.

There is no probably about it, the Capitals are a fragile hockey team and what is even more disturbing is when you consider that “fragile” is usually a term used to describe a team that is young and inexperienced, the situation becomes downright scary and unacceptable.

The Capitals played their best first period of hockey on Thursday night but it was gone in the blink of an eye when the Habs scored up a pair of goals in 57 seconds early in the second period. From then on, the Caps played with no heart, no hustle and like a group of guys who just found each other at a late night pick up hockey game.

Last night against the defending Eastern Conference Champions the Capitals managed to battle back from a 2-0 deficit, only to lose 3-2 on overtime. The loss dropped the Caps to 0-3-1 and the Caps are now winless through four games for the first time since 1993-94, when they started the season 0-6.  

That Capitals team would win nine of their next 10 games, finish the season with 88 points (third in Atlantic) and even managed to bounce their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins from the playoffs in the first round. Washington would go on to lose to eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers in the second round in just five games.

This Caps team has a lot of work to do if they are going to win nine of 10 games and make the playoffs, especially with just 44-games to play. I am not big on reading this morning that at least the Caps earned a point in New Jersey. That is like saying your honor roll student passed all of their classes with a 2.5 G.P.A. This team has too much talent and too good of a core group of players to earn one point moral victories.

The Capitals did provide a better effort in New Jersey on Friday night and didn't seem to quit after trailing. Caps Winger Troy Brouwer called his team out following their loss on Thursday night. Brouwer said their performance was” pathetic” on Thursday but HC Adam Oates felt a better effort, which at least earned a point, was put forth against the Devils.

“Obviously I read Troy’s comments yesterday about how we all didn't work,” says Oates. “I think tonight was an example of [how] we did [work]. It was great to see. Obviously, you want to get the win, but we waited for 57 minutes to get the tying goal. We hung in there, we did our job, everybody worked for 60 minutes and we played a much, much better hockey game.

The Capitals have played four games and held a lead for just 2 minutes and 32 seconds so far this season. That lead came in the first game of the season when Matt Hendricks scored the season’s first goal against the Winnipeg Jets.  Through four games and an extra session, the Caps have trailed for 179-minutes and 49 seconds and have played tied for an additional 62-minutes and 19-seconds.

UNDISCIPLINED PLAY DURING CRITICAL STRETCHES HURTING TEAM:

These numbers do not indicate this Capitals team is on the cusp of breaking out and ready to win nine of their next 10 as the 93-94 team did.

While Oates is correct about playing for the full 60-minutes, last night’s game was 64-plus minutes and his team continued their trend of playing undisciplined hockey this season. For the fourth straight game, the Capitals took penalties in bunches and for the fourth straight game, allowed a power-play goal. For the third time in four games, the Caps allowed a 5-on-3 goal.

Last Saturday in Tampa to start the season, Washington took six penalties in succession. The last two of those came early in the third period of a tie game, 64 seconds apart. The result was a 5-on-3 game-winning goal from Martin St. Louis.  In Tuesday’s home opener against Winnipeg and playing with their only lead of the season, the Caps took two minors in just 2:56. Winnipeg scored on both power plays to take a lead they would not relinquish, sending the Caps to a 4-2 loss.

On Thursday against the Canadiens, Washington took three minors in just 2:41 of a scoreless game, enabling the Habs to get on the board with a 5-on-3 goal. Montreal scored another power-play goal shortly thereafter, one of four second-period goals that led to a 4-1 win.

Last night, the Caps took three minors in just 3:52 late in the second period. With the Devils already up 1-0, Patrik Elias doubled the lead with a 5-on-3 goal with a minute left in the middle frame.

To be fair and not sound like the officials are calling the game one way, the Devils picked up the games final six penalties of the night during regulation until Mike Green committed the Caps seventh interference penalty in four games during overtime.

A MESS WITH NO RELIEF IN SIGHT AND SPECIAL TEAMS NOT VERY SPECIAL TO START SEASON:

The Capitals are a mess. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are the core group of players that remain from the days of when Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach back in 2007.

 Since then and including the Boudreau for Glen Hanlon transition, the Capitals have participated in no less than five system changes. Of course, the Boudreau to Dale Hunter transition and now the Hunter to Oates scheme. Let’s not forget the system change Bruce Boudreau implemented mid-season back in 2010 as the Caps were mired in an 8-game losing streak, which put more of an onus on defense and penalty killing.

While the Core three are the only players remaining from the 07 roster, seven current Caps players have been apart of the team since Boudreau went defense in December of 2010. Throw in the fact that the Caps had six practices following the lockout with a new head coach and system, and” VOILA”-------You are witnessing a bona fide on ice disaster.

Further proof the Capitals are not close to competing at a playoff level is the number of “lazy penalties the team has taken. So far this season, Washington has committed 24 minor penalties, fifth worst in the NHL. Of those 24 minors, six are interference, and six are tripping penalties, all penalties which usually taken when a player is beaten for position or to beaten to the puck.

Once down a man, the Caps are not killing penalties with any success. With a 66.7 percent penalty, kill success rate, the Caps rank 26th in the league in the young season. However, no team has surrendered more power play goals (eight) than the Capitals. 

Washington is 3-for-20 on the power play this season, and its 15 percent success rate is tied for 22 in the league.

WHO IS NUMBER 1 NOW?

Each young Caps goalie has now started two games this season for Washington and if the early returns are any indication, Michael Neuvirth has the early edge. However, neither is posting mind-numbing stats.

Many experts and prognosticators predicted that not having a veteran goalie would hurt the Caps during a short season and while many Caps fans frowned upon that prediction, those frowns are now turning into looks of concern as neither is proving to be a game stealer early on. Many believed that while Holtby was a star in the playoffs last season, the sampling size is to small for an entire NHL season.

Last night and for the first time in 11 months, Neuvirth played both ends of back-to-back NHL games. Friday’s game marked the 10th time in his NHL career that Neuvirth has either started both ends of back-to-backs or played more than half of the first of back-to-backs while starting and finishing the second.

 Neuvirth is now 4-2-2 in the second game of such situations, with a 2.78 GAA and a .903 save pct.  

Neuvirth made 32 saves on the night. He faced six shots in the first, 14 in the second, seven in the third and eight in less than five minutes of overtime. He was not any the worse for wear afterwards. “Actually I felt pretty good,” says Neuvirth. “I didn’t have a lot of work [Thursday] in the third period. I didn’t skate this morning and I felt good the whole game.”

Holtby started the first two games this season and faced 73 shots. He stopped 63 of them, which has led to his rather gaudy 5.04 goals against average and paltry .863 save percentage. The young playoff hero from last season looks unsettled in his crease and does not seem to be doing the little things such as flowing from side to side with his stick on the ice. During the Caps home opener, Winnipeg’s Evander Kane scored a goal from the right corner while standing near the red goal line. The puck traveled through Holtby’s crease, hit his right skate (his far skate), and deflected into the net. A simple stick on the ice would have deflected the puck back into traffic out front. Furthermore, that is the type of shot that Holtby grabbed and held during the playoffs last season, which led to play stoppages causing disruptions in Boston’s and the Rangers offensive flows.

The Caps defense has tightened up with Neuvirth in net. Neuvirth has faced 16 less shot than his counterpart has. Neuvy has stopped 50 of the 57 shots he’s seen and has a 3.36 G.A.A with an .877 save percentage. Neuvirth did keep the Capitals in the contest, as Washington needed two and a half periods to get on the scoreboard.

“He was unbelievable,” forward Joel Ward said speaking to reporters after the game. “Good for him, he’s a great goaltender and I think it’s a great confidence booster for him. To face a power play like [New Jersey’s] as many times as he did and come out of it … If it wasn't for him we’d be toast. He made some big saves especially down the stretch.”

 If you are wondering, which goalie is No.1, stop wondering, while Neuvy made a good first step last night in NJ, neither has jumped out and taken the job, which is obviously still up for grabs.

IS OATES PANICKING WITH LINEUP SHUFFLE?

Coaches are always looking to change lineups when teams are not playing well. Caps rookie coach Adam Oates took things to an extreme last night in New Jersey. Alex Ovechkin has been playing right wing but last night moved back to his familiar left wing spot. While this was simply a matter of time, what couldn’t have been predicted was whom Ovie skated with on the first line. Customary fourth liners Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb played with The Great 8 on the top line. 

Head coach Adam Oates was non-committal in in calling this combination the “top line”. “I wouldn’t call it the first line,” says Oates. “Crabber played a lot of hockey games [in the ECHL during the lockout]. So he had some real good jump. Just [wanted] to let them play with Ovie for 60 minutes so they could skate.”  Beagle and Crabb have combined to score 26 career goals, which is 12 less than Ovechkin scored last season. 

“Trying to find balance and chemistry,” says Oates. “The biggest subject we’ve been talking about is conditioning. And just trying to make sure that we have someone on the line that has got game shape, total game shape.”

Nicklas Backstrom centered a line with Wojtek Wolski and Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro skated between the duo of Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. The fourth line featured Marcus Johansson with Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr. For Fehr, it marked his first game of the 2012-13 season and his first regular-season contest for Washington since April 9, 2011.

Defenseman John Erskine also got his first start of the season and Jeff Schultz returned since last playing opening night in Tampa.

“That’s the way it is when things aren’t going well,” says Alzner of the lineup shuffle. “Maybe your pairing is going good, but you’ve got to change it. Same with the lines, you’ve got to find chemistry somewhere. It’s easy to sometimes have it but sometimes to fall out of it. Good changes I think, at least for right now trying to figure out who is going to mesh well with each other.

Oates may not have found complete success but a point is a point and players who are not playing because of performance generally provide a better effort their first time back onto the ice.  Erskine logged 17:30 of ice time on the night, his highest single-game total since he skated 17:50 in a Nov. 15, 2011 game against the Predators in Nashville.

You have to appreciate the Oates philosophy of if you are going to give them a sweater, you may as well let them play. Recent Caps coaches did not always share that same philosophy. Many times during the Boudreau era and even last season with Hunter behind the bench, players were given sweaters to play only to sit on the bench and watch for most of the night.

Mike Green easily logged the most ice time in Friday night’s tilt. Green totaled 31:10 in ice, almost six minutes more than Caps defenseman John Carlson.  That was Greens’ highest regular season single-game total since he played 34:03 in a Dec. 23, 2010 game against Pittsburgh at Verizon Center.

As for the forwards, Alex Ovechkin skated 22:29 in the contest, second behind center Nicklas Backstrom who led all forwards with 22:43 on the sheet.

CAPS READYING FOR ANOTHER SHOWDOWN ON SUPER SUNDAY:

The brutality and reality of a lockout-shortened season reared its ugly head right from the start of the season this week. Washington played four games in six days and is getting ready for a similar ride this week. Washington will play five games in eight days, including a minor league like stretch of three games in four days.

The Caps will open the week by hosting the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday and then travel to play the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to Verizon Center to host both Keystone state rivals next weekend.

The Flyers will invade on Friday night Feb 1 and the Penguins visit for what is becoming an annual nationally televised affair for Washington on Super Bowl Sunday. Despite hosting the Bruins last year on Super Bowl Sunday, this will be the third time Pittsburgh and Washington have met on Super Bowl Sunday for a nationally televised audience.

The Capitals are 2-1 in their last three Super Sunday showdowns. They lost 4-1 last season to Boston but defeated the Penguins 3-0 in 2011 and who could forget the Caps 5-4 thrilling come from behind win over Pittsburgh on Super Sunday 2010.

Penguins great Sidney Crosby scored the game’s first two goals and Washington trailed 4-1 at one point and 4-2 heading into the third period. Alex Ovechkin had the Caps lone goal of the game but The Great 8 would score two more in the contest, registering a hat trick, as the Caps scored three unanswered goals and won in overtime 5-4.

Mike Knubble scored a power play goal in overtime on a pass from Ovie and the Caps extended a franchise record winning streak to 14-games with the victory. Ironically, the Caps winning streak would be stopped in their next game with a 6-5 overtime loss to the Canadiens, the same team that ended the Capitals season with a seven game victory in the playoffs later that spring.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS ON BLOG TALK RADIO:

Following the Super Bowl, Capitals Corner will debut on the FANSPEAK RADIO NETWORK. The show, which will air on Monday nights from 8:30 until 10:30, will be all about your Washington Capitals as well as the rest of the NHL. You can look forward to some exciting guests and analysis by yours truly. Stay tuned right here for further show information.