The effort and goaltending of Michal Neuvirth was certainly present Friday against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center, but the Capitals dropped a disheartening 3-2 decision in overtime when Ilya Kovalchuk connected for the home team with 20.5 seconds remaining.
Still, there were a lot of positives to take in defeat.
"Obviously, I read Troy Brouwer's comments [after Thursday's 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens] about how we didn't work," Oates said. "But [Friday] was an example of what we can do when we do work and it was great to see. You want to get the win, but we waited for 57 minutes to get the tying goal [by Mike Green at 17:04 of the third period]. We hung in there and did our job and everybody worked for 60 minutes. We played a much better hockey game."
The last time the Capitals opened a season with four losses was 1993-94 when they dropped six straight on the way to a 39-35-10 season. That team qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the quarterfinal round before losing to the New York Rangers in five.
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Unlike 1993-94, when the Capitals had 80 more games to build on following their fourth loss, they have 44 more this season. That means the time is now to right the ship.
"At this point, I wouldn't say there's no panic," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We've lost four in a row and that's not good for a team that was expected, on paper, to do the exact opposite. We haven't been able to put it together, so I wouldn't say it's total panic, but definitely something is not working, so we have to change it."
Oates attempted to do that against the Devils when he juggled his forward lines and inserted defensemen John Erskine and Jeff Schultz into the lineup. Erskine was making his season debut and Schultz his second appearance.
"I think the improvement was mostly in our end since that's what we addressed," Oates said. "We did a better job of protecting the puck and getting it out and making the next decision. I thought the guys really understood where to put the puck and they stayed together throughout the whole game. Yes, we got behind, but we didn't crumble and that was great to see."
Capitals forward Mike Ribeiro said he believes now is the time for every player to look in the mirror and take some responsibility.
"Some players, like me, can play better … [Alex Ovechkin] can play better," Ribeiro said. "A lot of guys can step up and play better. We have a better idea with how we played this game, how we're supposed to play to win games every night. We need to win those races for pucks and battle in the corners."
The Capitals did earn a point but are the only winless team in the Eastern Conference, outscored 17-8. Washington has led for 2:32 in four games (244 minutes of action), are 3-for-20 on the power play, and have allowed eight power-play goals in 24 times short.
"I think we're trying too hard to get the puck to Ovi during our power-play; we just have to play the game," Ribeiro said. "We are keeping the puck too long. We have to move that puck and move our feet and create rebounds."
In an attempt to get Ovechkin going, Oates decided to return him to left wing with center Jay Beagle and right wing Joey Crabb. Center Nicklas Backstrom started the game between left wing Wojtek Wolski and right wing Brouwer.
"I'm just trying to find balance and chemistry," Oates said. "The biggest thing we've been talking about is conditioning and making sure we have someone on the line that is in total game shape."
When questioned why he felt Crabb and Beagle were the right fit for Ovechkin on this night, Oates said Crabb "had a lot of jump" of late.
"Let them play with Ovi for 60 minutes so they can skate and see what happens," Oates said.
Ovechkin and Backstrom have combined for no goals, three assists and a minus-3 rating in four games.
Ribeiro said special teams will make or break the Capitals in the long run.
"Power plays can give you momentum or take momentum away and a lot of times we couldn't generate anything, but we stuck with it and we were able to score and come back in the game," he said. "At least we know that if we play like this, we'll stay in games. This is a hard building to play in; it's hard to go through those guys. But we have a better idea how to play as a team to win games."
Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who was assisted by Oates last season, said the Capitals are better than their record indicates.
"I told [Oates] to stick with it," DeBoer said. "I think his team is headed in the right direction. For a team that played back-to-back, I thought they battled awfully hard. They're heading the right way and he's a very good coach."
Alzner said there was one positive to take from Friday's loss.
"The one thing we were talking about during the second intermission was to stay with it," he said. "We got so down when we were scored against the last few games, so we just wanted to make sure we still kept it together. We were strong 5-on-5, but we were dying on special teams. So the fact we stuck with it is something positive we can take into our next game [at home against the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday]."