In a shortened season, every game is precious

It is not the start that they wanted. It is not the start that they could afford.

But the Capitals find themselves in an early hole during this lockout-shortened 48-game season with a 1-4-1 record through six games. In a normal year, there would be 76 more games to work out the kinks. Now? Time is short, and opportunities can't be wasted. Washington did just that Tuesday night in Ottawa when a two-goal lead late in the second period slipped away in a 3-2 loss to the Senators.

Washington will attempt to rebound Thursday night when it plays the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Caps' three standings points have them sitting in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, so they need to produce soon. Weekend home games loom against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. Only the Florida Panthers (1-5-0, two points) are worse so far in 2013.

Up next
Capitals at Maple Leafs
When » Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where » Air Canada Centre,

There is some hope for optimism. Washington played its best two periods of the season against the Senators on Tuesday. Troy Brouwer and Matt Hendricks both scored in the first period, and the Caps consistently cycled the puck at will, generating 24 shots on goal through two periods and keeping the puck in the Ottawa end.

But they also failed to expand that lead in the second period and had just two power-play chances in the game. It didn't help that Senators goalie Craig Anderson (31 saves) was excellent. The Caps need more offensively from their stars against the Maple Leafs, who have allowed 20 goals in six games and are struggling to find chemistry on the blueline.

Toronto (3-3-0, six points) has given up 15 of those goals in the last three games alone -- though it did win 4-3 in overtime Tuesday at Buffalo thanks to a goal with 1.5 seconds to go by forward Matt Frattin. But are Washington's top players capable of taking advantage of the Leafs? Alex Ovechkin scored in Sunday's win over Buffalo, but he has just one goal and one assist in six games. Nicklas Backstrom, meanwhile, has yet to score and has just three assists.

Both men should be in shape. They were teammates in the Kontinental Hockey League with Dynamo Moscow during the four-month NHL lockout. But neither has been productive early. Ovechkin has started the last three games alongside grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. Backstrom has centered the second line with Brouwer and Wojtek Wolski. Mike Ribeiro has been between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward on the third line.

"I guess I'm still learning," Caps coach Adam Oates said Monday when asked about who he wants paired with Ovechkin. "I like having north/south guys with him. Maybe sometimes with the other guys they might try and get too creative."

But that hasn't always held during games. It took just one shift Tuesday against Ottawa for Oates to push Backstrom and Brouwer up to Ovechkin's line. Washington needs an answer. It ranks 23rd in the NHL at just 2.2 goals per game. Ribeiro leads the way with six points, and Ward (five) and Chimera (four) are next in line.