For three days, the cracks in the Washington Capitals' facade were glossed over.
Back-to-back victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and Friday allowed the Capitals to latch onto a glimmer of hope that perhaps the four-game losing streak they had just snapped was not a reflection of who or where they are as a team.
Winning, however, is the ultimate concealer, and in a 2-1 shootout loss to the NHL-worst Buffalo Sabres on Sunday (their second such loss in two weeks), the good times came to a screeching halt and Washington was thrust back into reality.
Against a hapless Sabres team that had not won a road game in over two months, the Capitals fell prey to their opponent's maddeningly passive style, one that creates the illusion of space and, as coach Adam Oates forewarned prior to the game, can lull opponents to sleep.
Washington plodded through a listless performance, failing to truly challenge Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller until the final minutes of regulation, when it forced him to make a spectacular stick save on Mikhail Grabovski to keep the game knotted at 1-1.
“We didn’t come out with enough energy,” Jason Chimera said matter-of-factly.
The Capitals thought they had the game won again with 53 seconds remaining in regulation when Karl Alzner's slap shot eluded Miller, but just before Alzner's stick made contact with the puck, Nicklas Backstrom tripped Sabres forward Cody Hodgson, negating the goal and putting the Capitals in a shorthanded situation for the fifth time.
As Backstrom admitted after the game, "we maybe didn't deserve [a win]," and he is right.
It has been said in this space before, but if Miller's outstretched stick does not clip Grabovski's shot or Backstrom does not put himself in a position to be penalized before Alzner rips one past Miller, the Capitals might have spoken of their resiliency in spite of an imperfect effort.
Now, they have no choice but to be faced with the harsh truth that maybe they are what their 22-16-7 record indicates they are: a decidedly mediocre team that routinely fails to string together consistent performances.
The Capitals, however, have an opportunity to prove that notion wrong. Their next 10 games -- eight of which are on the road -- could very well be a season-defining stretch.
It begins with a back-to-back set against the dangerous San Jose Sharks on Tuesday at Verizon Center and the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins the following night at Consol Energy Center.
Make it through this daunting run to close out January -- which features five road games against Metropolitan Division opponents, where every point will prove precious -- relatively intact, and the Capitals can lay a foundation from which to build on.
If they fall short, then they will have less than 30 games to scrape themselves off the mat, and there has been little evidence through the first half of the season to prove that they are capable of doing that.
So what exactly are the Capitals made of? We are about to find out.
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