NHL-best Capitals ‘slapped in the face’ by 4 straight losses

FILE- In this Sunday, March 12, 2017, file photo Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby laments as the puck pounces out of the net, after a goal by Anaheim Ducks center Rickard Rakell during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif. The Capitals have lost four straight games. The overall NHL leaders are hoping this late-season adversity finally gives them the toughness necessary for playoff success. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, File)

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) The Washington Capitals have four straight regulation losses for the first time in 2+ seasons. Their defense has been shredded for 17 goals during that skid, and superstar Alex Ovechkin is mired in the longest goal-scoring drought of his career.

No wonder the doors to the visitors’ dressing room stayed shut for an awfully long time after the overall NHL leaders concluded a miserable California road swing with a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night.

”We’re trying to do good things, and maybe we deserve a little better, but it doesn’t really matter at this point,” defenseman John Carlson said. ”I truly believe that you get slapped in the face a lot throughout the year, and you can pout about it, or get over it and get better.”

Indeed, the Capitals seem to be at a crossroads as they return home for a visit from Western Conference-leading Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Washington (44-17-7) has been on top of the Metropolitan Division and the overall NHL standings since Jan. 15, but the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Calgary on Monday with the chance to move on top.

”If we’re good enough to be a championship team, we will get through this,” All-Star goalie Braden Holtby said.

The Capitals have rarely played two straight bad games during coach Barry Trotz’s tenure, but they’ve now played four stinkers in a row, losing by a combined 17-8. They were trounced in succession by the Sharks , Kings and Ducks in a four-night stretch out on the West Coast.

”Adversity is a great teacher,” Trotz said. ”We haven’t had a lot in the last couple of years.”

Yet Washington’s veteran core knows it can’t wait much longer to learn its lessons for the postseason. The Caps are 5-6-1 since their mid-February bye week, and they’ve scored more than two goals in a game just twice.

”We just haven’t quite adjusted to everyone else playing playoff hockey quite yet,” Holtby said. ”That’s something we know. We realize in our room that we’re going to have to adjust and step up. We’re just a little bit behind as a group. … I think it’s a good eye-opener, and a good wakeup call.”

The Capitals’ offensive struggles are epitomized by Ovechkin, who hasn’t scored a goal in 10 games or an even-strength goal in 18 games – both the worst stretches of the six-time Richard Trophy winner’s 12-year, 907-game career.

Trotz said Ovechkin is actually playing solid hockey, moving his feet and getting into prime positions to score. The coach still tried to apply a spark by separating Ovechkin and playmaker Nicklas Backstrom on Saturday night in Los Angeles.

”It’s a little bit frustrating because the puck won’t go in, but we maybe wait,” Ovechkin said. ”Something (will) happen. Going to be a miracle or something.

”We have a solid group of guys, and we’ve been together a long time,” Ovechkin added. ”Obviously, we don’t remember when we’ve lost four in a row, and that’s a good thing. It’s nice it’s happening right now before the playoffs, (rather) than during the playoffs.”

Indeed, the Capitals hope their unusual struggles will translate into something else they haven’t experienced: postseason success.

Washington has been a regular-season powerhouse for a decade, compiling six division titles, five 100-point seasons and two Presidents’ Trophies while making eight playoff appearances. But it has won just five postseason series in that stretch, never advancing past the second round.

According to a common theory about regular-season powerhouses, cruising into the postseason doesn’t allow them to develop the mental and physical toughness to survive two grueling months of Stanley Cup pursuit.

Washington will have to grind to get out of this March rut, and the Caps are hoping they’ll learn something they can use in May and June.

”We’ve got away from executing as a group, trusting each other to be in the right places, making saves at the right time,” Holtby said. ”It’s something we’re going to have to really dig down and pull through, and the good thing about it is we have some tests coming up that will show the character of our team.”

The Caps must next face former coach Bruce Boudreau and the Wild, who trail Washington by just three points with a game in hand. Their next five games are against postseason contenders.

”We just haven’t quite adjusted to everyone else playing playoff hockey quite yet,” Holtby said. ”We realize in our room that we’re going to have to adjust and step up. We’re just a little bit behind as a group. I think it’s a good eye-opener, and a good wakeup call that this is a playoff run now.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregbeacham