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The Capitals must stop thinking about milestones and start thinking about winning



In two games since, Ovechkin hasn’t scored. That’s a blip. What’s far worse: The Capitals have been outscored 12-5 on home ice. They have stunk.

“Now it’s adversity, for sure,” right wing Tom Wilson said.

Adversity, for sure, after a 5-3 loss Monday to the New York Islanders that followed Saturday night’s unsightly 7-2 drubbing against Philadelphia. The Capitals now stumble west. They may well do so without the services of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who absorbed a massive hit in the second period as the Capitals dug a 5-1 hole. He bypassed the bench for the dressing room and never returned. Maybe — maybe — it’s not serious. But . . .

“This isn’t winning hockey right here,” Coach Todd Reirden said, “and there’s no secret to that.”

The results, which had seemed secondary as Ovechkin blitzed toward his milestone, suddenly matter. When they return from stops in Colorado, Arizona and Las Vegas, Ovechkin may well have his 700th goal. That would be wonderful, even if it happens after most of us have gone to bed. What would be more important would be, say, five standings points, just to steady themselves.

“We just kind of need the reset button,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who came on in relief of Ilya Samsonov.

How perceptions have flipped in a week. What was to be a celebration of Ovechkin has now morphed into an annual, inevitable Capitals funk.

“I don’t know if it’s a distraction,” Wilson said of Ovechkin’s impending mark. “Maybe it is. In the NHL, when you’re a professional, you’re supposed to deal with what’s going on around you. It’s not always a great day at home. It’s not always a great day at the rink. You come to the rink, and you’ve got to perform.”

That’s not what’s happening at the moment. Washington no longer has more points than every team in hockey. The Capitals have given up 23 goals in their past five home games. They framed the aftermath Monday in terms of looking forward to the upcoming trip, because they actually have a better record on the road than at Capital One Arena.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that we play better on the road this year because we simplify things,” Reirden said.

So, then, the wake-up call is here. And Ovechkin is sitting on 698. He’ll get the 700th. But the rate at which he was scoring wasn’t sustainable. The Caps can’t force him into that club. It has to come naturally.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Reirden said. “We all know he’s going to score two goals, so it’s just when it happens and how it happens. . . .

“The more we try to get him the puck and do things outside of our normal team identity, it doesn’t help the cause. So we have to play the right way and do things correctly, and as a byproduct he is going to score as he has all these years.”

Ovechkin’s recent brilliance has distracted us from what’s actually going on with the Capitals and has disguised some of their recent deficiencies. Think about the last game before the all-star break, up on Long Island against these very Islanders. On a Saturday afternoon when they very much looked as if they wanted to jet to 20 separate tropical islands as soon as the puck was dropped, the Caps fell behind ­4-1 — and then Ovechkin willed them back with a hat trick. A certain loss became a pulsating win.

How glorious. But dissecting the victory, reveling in the Caps’ resilience and genuflecting in Ovechkin’s direction glossed over an important point: Why were they trailing by three goals in the first place?

The same could be said of so many recent outings. They lost at home to Nashville, currently out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They played 40 junk minutes against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins before righting themselves in the third period, by which point it was too late. Ovechkin’s game-saving hat trick against the Kings steered the story away from an ugly angle — that they needed the captain to bail them out of what was looking like a home loss to one of the worst teams in the league.

And all of that was before Saturday’s debacle against the Flyers, who are just barely in playoff position. Want a wrinkle in these past two duds? On Saturday, Holtby gave up seven goals to Philadelphia before he mercifully ceded the net to Samsonov to mop up. On Monday, Samsonov started and was tagged for five goals before Reirden turned to Holtby.

What does that tell you? It tells you it’s not the goaltending. It’s the defense. Washington has allowed at least four goals in five of its past eight games.

“It’s too easy to score against us right now,” center Lars Eller said. “It’s not because of our goalies.”

Their next home game is Feb. 20. Maybe it’ll be preceded by a ceremony honoring Ovechkin’s new mark. If it is, then it probably means the Capitals will have tightened things up on their swing through the mountains and the desert.

“Obviously, we want ‘O’ to get to 700,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be a great day when he does. But for now, we’ve got to worry about the two points at the end of the night, especially at this time of year. We’ve got to be playing better hockey.”

When the Capitals are at their best, Ovechkin doesn’t have to will them to wins. He has done that frequently over the past month, and it has been inspiring. The past two games have landed with a thud. There can’t be many more like them, or even the celebration of No. 700 — so anticipated for so long — will feel hollow.

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