ARLINGTON, Va. - During the off-season, the pre-season and the early part of the regular season, the Washington Capitals were quite convinced they were ready to return to the post-season.
From owner Ted Leonsis to coach Glen Hanlon to star forward Alex Ovechkin and other players, the consensus was that enough talent was brought in for improvement. A 3-0 start only fueled the optimism.
And now? Not only is the current edition of the Capitals not any better than the club that finished 27th out of 30 teams the past two seasons - it's worse.
At 6-13-1 as of Tuesday, Washington has the fewest points (13) in the NHL. All of that talk about the playoffs is being drowned out by the boos and choruses of "Fire Hanlon!" that reverberated through the stands in the Capitals' latest loss, a 4-3 setback at home against the Florida Panthers on Monday night.
"Going into this season, with the guys we added, we had high expectations here. And to be seven games under .500 after starting 3-0 is a huge disappointment. Huge," goalie Olie Kolzig said after practice Tuesday.
"The last two years, you knew what we had as a team, and it was, 'Go out, work hard and see what happens. Things are going to get better. The grass is going to get a little greener.' And the grass has gotten greener," Kolzig said, then laughed a bit before continuing. "But it hasn't turned into wins."
Washington has lost four consecutive games, eight of its past nine, and 14 of its past 17.
Leonsis declined an interview request Tuesday, but he did post a message on his blog: "I can't sleep. I was up at 4:30 a.m. this morning. I am in pain. I am angry. I want desperately for us to turn it around and win some games, as does everyone in our organization. I am not oblivious to what is happening. ... I am a fan as well."
If the Capitals lose in regulation Wednesday night, when they host the Atlanta Thrashers, they will be stuck with the franchise's lowest point total through 21 games since the 1981-82 season.
"We have to realize how desperate we are right now," forward Brooks Laich said. "We have to play every game like it's our last."
There are plenty of reasons for the poor record, but the most glaring issue has been scoring. Ovechkin entered Tuesday sixth in the league with 13 goals, and he isn't getting much help.
The Capitals are averaging 2.3 goals, ranking 28th in the NHL. They keep falling behind and failing to recover, going 1-10-1 when opponents score first.
Hanlon also acknowledged Tuesday that his team has been making some basic mistakes lately, the kinds of errors that can make a difference in a tight game.
"There was a certain point where we could say, 'Poor us. We're playing well and we're doing all these things right, and we're just not scoring.' But the last couple of games, that's not the case," Hanlon said.
"We've done some things that don't allow us to win hockey games. That's not other teams beating us, that's us beating ourselves."
He was particularly dismayed by the play in the first two periods against Florida, saying it was the only time since becoming Washington's coach in December 2003 that he's seen his players tight.
"You cannot play tentative and worried about results," Hanlon said. "You can't do it."
During practice, the Capitals worked on drills to focus on two particular areas of concern: turnovers and players taking too long shifts. Hanlon also continued a season-long trend of shaking up his forward lines, trying to hit upon just the right mix.
Monday's game was only the third time all season he had his top six forwards all available; with wings Chris Clark and Alexander Semin now back from lengthy injury absences, Hanlon has everyone in the fold.
"We need to win a hockey game here and feel better about ourselves," general manager George McPhee said before Monday's game. "We'd all like to see what it looks like intact for the first time."
As for the anti-Hanlon sentiment expressed by some in the stands Monday, both Kolzig and Clark said they don't think coaching is the problem.
Asked about those jeers, Hanlon said: "The coaches are strong and players are strong and management is strong, and we've got ourselves in this position and we'll battle it out together. ... We believe in what we're doing, we believe we're going to be successful. We won't waver in that."