At bottom of the NHL, Washington looks for answers

The Capitals have climbed out of holes before. But the most consistent of Washington's pro sports franchises finally may have given itself too big a challenge.

With a 2-7-1 record and the fewest points among the NHL's 30 teams, the Caps are in trouble. And thanks to a four-month lockout, the shortened 48-game regular season provides no margin for error.

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Capitals at Penguins
When » Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where » Consol Energy Center,

The search for answers already has begun. The goaltending must be better, defensive miscues limited, special teams stabilized and the forwards' production level increased. It's not that Washington is bad in all of those categories, but the Caps aren't playing at a high level anywhere on the ice, either.

"We're OK in a lot of areas, and OK is not good enough," forward Jason Chimera said. "I think we're playing good. But it's not a game of 'too close.' You got to have two points. You got to have wins. And that's the bottom line. Playing good is not good enough anymore."

Canvass the Washington locker room, and multiple players will say the team is better than its record indicates. The Caps have lost four times by a 3-2 score, after all. Even a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay in the season opener Jan. 19 was a tie game entering the third period and a one-goal game with less than seven minutes left.

"It seems like one game it's penalty kill, one game it's power play, one game it's a couple mental errors, one game it's bounces," defenseman Karl Alzner said.

There's no question players are still adjusting to new coach Adam Oates, who employs a system far different than the conservative approach used by Dale Hunter last season. And Hunter took over Nov. ?28, 2011, from Bruce Boudreau, who had ingrained his own methods over the previous four years. For a team in that position, a six-day training camp was a hindrance.

"It's always tough when you have a new coach and you have three times in less than a year they changed the psychology of the team, how they play," said former Washington goalie Tomas Vokoun, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "It took us at least 20 games to change [with] Dale to get kind of in grasp with the new system. And without training camp, they were already a step behind."

But that excuse won't last much longer, players say. While young goalies Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have struggled with consistency and the defensemen in front of them have been shaky at times, it is on star players such as Alex Ovechkin to produce. So far he has just five points -- two goals and three assists.

"It's not like we're waiting on Ovi to lead the charge and score four or five goals in one game," Chimera said. "We got to do [it] individually. You can't look to one person. One person doesn't win you a Stanley Cup."

The Caps have been in this position before. An 0-6-2 stretch in December 2010 knocked the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They rallied that season to win the Southeast Division. Last year a 5-9-1 skid cost Boudreau his job. As late as Feb. 20, Washington was in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoff picture. And even after this rough start to 2013, entering Thursday's game in Pittsburgh the Caps are still just four points out of a postseason spot with 38 games left.

"It's not like we don't have the character in this room to get the job done," defenseman Mike Green said. "It's just a matter of us addressing and figuring out what we need to do to pull out of it."