At the start of this week, you might have thought the Capitals had just embarked on Carnival’s five-day trip to nowhere.
“It’s a mess,” NBC Sports Network analyst and former Capitals agitator Keith Jones told NHL.com.
NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button agreed.
“There’s a difference between a team that is trying to find their way and a team that looks completely lost,” Button said, “and to me the Capitals look completely lost.
“They’re 23rd in goals scored, 29th in goals against. Five-on-five, they’re terrible. Their penalty killing is awful. Faceoffs, they're awful. It's not one area of the game they’ve got to clean up; it’s every area of the game. It’s every aspect of their game. You just can’t play like that.”
If the 2-8-1 Capitals were lost a week ago, are they found today at 5-8-1 after their first three-game win streak of the season?
The Caps had to rally from a late two-goal deficit to beat the Panthers 6-5 in overtime and nearly blew a three-goal lead in their 4-3 win over the Lightning.
But they are making progress in some very key areas, namely special teams.
With power-play goals in six straight games the Caps have improved from 18th in the NHL at 17.9 percent, to fourth at 27.1 percent.
The penalty kill has also improved, killing off nine straight power-plays in the past three wins and improving from 29th in the NHL to 24th at 75 percent.
The Caps have also done a better job of staying out of the penalty box and have begun improving on faceoffs, where they rank 17th in the league at 49.5 percent.
From an individual standpoint, Alex Ovechkin [5 goals, 5 assists] is transitioning nicely to right wing after a rocky start; Mike Ribeiro [team-high 17 points] has been better than advertised as a play-making center; Troy Brouwer [7 goals] is evolving into the goal-scoring power forward the Caps envisioned when they acquired him; and defenseman Mike Green [26:33 average ice time] is skating as well as he has in three years.
That’s not to say there are no areas of concern.
The Capitals’ goaltending has been shaky, even in a few of their recent victories, and still ranks in the bottom five in the NHL at 3.50 per game.
The Caps also have not beaten one of the top eight teams in the conference, a chance they’ll be given next week when they face the Rangers on Sunday, then back-to-backs against the Devils.
From an individual standpoint, center Nicklas Backstrom [1 goals, 10 assists] has not been the impact player he was before suffering a concussion last season; Jason Chimera [0 goals, minus-3] , is off to the worst start of his career; and Marcus Johansson [1 goal, minus-7] has been a major disappointment.
To be clear the Caps have made significant strides in the past week and have a team capable of making the playoffs. If today’s NHL standings are any indication, it will take a record above .500 to get into the post-season; anything at or below .500 won’t get it done.
The biggest concern about starting a season 2-8-1 is the energy it takes to get back to .500 and the consistency required to stay above .500 the remainder of the season.
On paper, the Caps can do it. They have 34 games to prove it.