WASHINGTON -- If the Washington Capitals don't soon recover what is missing -- vital intangibles such as work ethic, chemistry, confidence and effort -- they will end up looking like last season's Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals, among the favourites in the Eastern Conference, are off to their worst start in nearly two decades. And the Canadiens, the dregs of the conference last season, have rolled off two straight impressive wins, including Thursday night's 4-1 victory over Washington.
"Embarrassing is almost the right term right now. Pathetic is probably a better one," Washington right wing Troy Brouwer said. "You know, I feel bad for the fans. I'd like to finish a game with at least 50 per cent of the fans still in the stands. Their reaction is completely warranted -- booing us. We haven't earned any respect. We haven't earned any of their passion, their ambition.
"We've got to turn something around, and we've got to do it fast. ... We've got to find a way to get some enthusiasm, get some passion in our game right now."
Brouwer's teammates and new coach Adam Oates echoed most of those sentiments. The Capitals are a team out of sorts, sitting at 0-3 for the first time since the 1993-94 season. Oates called his players "fragile" and lectured them about work ethic after allowing four goals in the second period.
"I would say some of our mistakes are pure effort," Oates said. "It's very upsetting. I'm not pushing the panic button, but obviously it's upsetting. ... You've got to really want to do it."
The Canadiens also underwent a coaching change, but Michel Therrien is having more success getting his players in gear after a compressed training camp in the lockout-shortened season. Montreal has won two straight since a season-opening loss, led by a resurgent Andrei Markov.
Finally healthy after twice tearing the ACL in his right knee, Markov had a goal and an assist during the second-period spree in which the Canadiens scored 5-on-3, 5-on-4 and 5-on-5 in a little over 6 minutes.
"He controls the game really well; he's got such an important role for us," Therrien said. "He competes so hard, he's tough to play against. And he's doing a very good job on the power play."
Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges also scored for the Canadiens, and Carey Price made 30 saves.
Markov has three goals on the season, helping to mitigate the absence of P.K. Subban, who is a restricted free agent and has yet to come to terms on a new contract.
"Everybody works hard and tries to stay on the same page," Markov said, "try to stick to the system -- and that gives us success."
Sounds like someone should send that blueprint to the Capitals, who have been outscored 14-6 through three games, with seven of the opponents' goals coming on power plays.
Joey Crabb scored with 2:23 to play for the Capitals, and two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin remains without a goal on the season. Oates shook things up by putting Wojtek Wolski on the first line with Ovechkin, and the two ran into each other in the offensive zone in the first period.
Ovechkin has been playing right wing consistently for the first time in his career, but he was switched back to left wing in the third period.
Asked to identify the team's biggest problem, Ovechkin said: "Just mentality."
"There are no excuses right now. ... We look embarrassing," he said.
Michal Neuvirth made his first start of the season in net, but he had a realistic chance to stop only one of Montreal's goals.
Washington ended a six-game winning streak against Montreal and lost in regulation to the Canadiens for the first time since Nov. 20, 2009.
"It's seems the chemistry isn't there," Washington centre Jay Beagle said. "The coach is throwing different lines together and just trying to get something going."
Markov supplied the assist on the game's first goal, sliding the puck to Plekanec during a two-man advantage while Ovechkin and Brouwer were in the penalty box.
It was 2-0 after Markov put in an easy rebound during a power play just 63 seconds later.
The third goal came after a classic defensive lapse. Three Capitals chased the puck into the corner, leaving Gionta alone to receive a pass from Rene Bourque.
The Capitals were so deflated that Gorges' goal late in the second period hardly mattered.
"We've got a lot of skill on this team, and that's something that you can't control on a lot of teams," Crabb said. "But what you can control is your work ethic, and how hard you play."
Notes: The 1993-94 Capitals team opened with six straight losses. ... Matt Hendricks, who got into a fight in Washington's previous game to try to give his team a boost, was at in again Thursday, tussling with Brandon Prust in the third period.