As the Washington Capitals trudged through a rough 2-8-1 start in the beginning of February, head coach Adam Oates kept the faith.
"I think we're going in the right direction," he would say, among many other positive reinforcements.
And to his credit, his team rallied around his words and his ideals, mustering up a 11-game stretch of inspired play that served to strengthen that faith.
There is a difference, however, between faith and reality. And after Tuesday's 4-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the harsh reality that the two are further apart now than they have been all season is setting in.
It's fitting that the Capitals lost to the Hurricanes, because they're in the midst of a downward spiral. Since entering last weekend as winners of eight of 11, Washington has lost three straight in regulation, having been outscored 13-3 since scoring seven goals against the Florida Panthers last Thursday.
At least in Saturday and Sunday's respective losses to the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, Washington could point to undisciplined play as the culprit.
Tuesday, however, there were no excuses. In a game the Capitals needed to win, they were outplayed and outhustled by a Hurricanes team that simply wanted it more.
“Just embarrassing, I think," Nicklas Backstrom said. "Our effort is not good enough. Especially if you’re gonna hunt that playoff spot, you can’t play like this. We’ve gotta be better than this. I think tonight was 60 minutes of just terrible effort from us. I don’t know what it is, but we for sure need to talk about it.”
But what is there to talk about? Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence -- but 10 times is an epidemic. The same problems (penalty troubles, issues of effort and inconsistency) continue to manifest themselves, and no amount of Oates-delivered sermons from the podium can completely absolve the Capitals of their sins.
The Capitals will face their final reckoning Thursday in the latter half of their home-and-home set with the Hurricanes in Raleigh.
A win can temporarily restore some semblance of faith, but a loss will put Washington 12 points behind Carolina in the Southeast Division with 22 games remaining, a likely insurmountable lead. The season might not be over, but the nails to the coffin can at least be prepared.
The Capitals have talked about faith like it can protect them, but it won't. The bright lights of postseason hockey are beginning to dim in Washington.
And if that happens, the only thing that the Capitals will have left is the faith that failed them.
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