Perhaps it's fallout from the reaction to the self-destruction of the city's NFL franchise, but while there seems to be a bit of self-doubt following four straight losses for the Capitals, it's important to step back and take a look at where the team is, and how much that is left to play out in the campaign.
When I first met Ted Leonsis in the November of 1999, just a couple of months after he had plunked down a nifty sum for the club, he wasn't thrilled with the team's very slow start to the season, but my words of wisdom to him was to remember the NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint. While the Capitals that year started out of the gate very slowly, they roared into the team's first divisional title since 1988-89 with a tremendous finish.
This year the Capitals came into the year with sky-high expectations, as after two years of being just expected to be playoff contenders, this year, they are carrying a lot bigger aspirations with them into the season.
But after a 2-2-2 start, how do they stand compared to the last two years?
Well, compared to last year's record-setting season, they're just one point different through six games (and the Caps then fell to .500 in the seventh game with a loss at Phoenix). Two years ago, they were 3-3-0 for six points, and then lost their seventh to fall below the break-even point.
In NFL plarlance, it's the equivalent of a snap judgement one game in after suffering a disappointing tie to being the same campaign.
The Capitals have some issues they need to address, to be sure.
The defense likely won't be the same as it will be in April, as the team has too many lower-tier defenseman, particularly with Karl Alzner and John Carlson playing well in Hershey, and that's not to rule out a rental at the deadline should George McPhee be able to move some cap room before the deadline. Injuries to Tom Poti and John Erskine Monday night could bring some changes, particularly if they're serious and allows the Caps to put one of the blueliners on IR and then bring up Alzner to help add a stay-at-home type defenseman that Washington doesn't have with the current eight up with the big club.
Offensively, the Capitals have been streaky, but that's the nature of their stars, as Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin have historically been very hot-and-cold through their careers, blazing hot at points and sometimes trying to do to much at others (the latter of which certainly can describe at least Semin's game Monday). On a game-to-game basis, they're not overly consistent, and a lot depends on how the supporting cast perform when it isn't a night for the Alexes.
Last night, Mike Knuble did his part with a goal and an assist, but they will need some more of the others to pop in a goal, but that also will get a boost once Tomas Fleischmann returns to the lineup.
Probably the best surprise so far this year is the improved play of Jose Theodore, as he has a .908 save percentage and was brilliant at times against New Jersey. This, of course, is a welcome development on two fronts, since not only does it help the team on the ice, it also boosts the value of perhaps their top commodity come spring, since a team needing a goalie might be able to allow Washington to free up the cap room to make an impact deal to shore up the blueline or another need at that point.
For all the comparisons between this year's team and last year's Pittsburgh Penguins that have been made, it's important to remember the Penguins were sitting just two games above .500 in February and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. But, like the current Caps, the talent-laden Pens got their act into gear in time, made a shrewd deal to land Bill Guerin at the deadline and were able to roll into the last four months of the season despite a thin blueline and an somewhat suspect netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Caps have some company in the early-season doldrums, as the Bruins (2-3-0), Hurricanes (2-3-0), Red Wings (2-2-0), Canucks (2-3-0) and the Caps' next opponent, Sharks (3-2-1) all aren't where they wanted to be out of the gate.
But while the Capitals have some questions to be answered, there is a long race ahead. Theodore's status will be one key development, not to mention if they can find a solution to Michael Nylander's status.
While pundits (myself included) will be critical of the team's day-to-day performance, in the grand scheme of things, right now while it isn't the start the team wanted, it certainly has plenty of time to be fixed. Even when teams have rolled off to great starts (see, 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres, 2007-08 Ottawa Senators or 2008-09 San Jose Sharks), it hasn't meant a June parade (or even a Finals berth), so the key in the NHL nowadays is to qualify for the playoffs and put yourself in a better position at that point than you started the season with.