At the 2010-11 NHL All-Star Break, the Washington Capitals had played 50 games at a record of 27-14-9 for 63 points, good for seventh in the League, fifth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Southeast Division behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A year later, at the 2011-12 NHL All-Star Break, the Caps have played 48 games at a record of 26-19-3 for 55 points, good for 13th in the League, seventh in the Eastern Conference and first in the Southeast Division.
The Capitals are not nearly as good as the team was a season ago, and it has been in large part due to some bad performances from some key players. Here is a list of five players who need to pick up their game if the Caps are to have a successful playoff run this season.
This summer, after signing Joel Ward to a four-year, $3 million contract, General Manager George McPhee admitted they had overpaid for him "by about 15 percent," according to the Washington Post. It was with the hope that he would exceed expectations and become a key player this season for the Caps.
He has failed to do so.
Ward had a great start. He scored four goals and added three assists in his first 12 games and became a key component in the Caps dubbed "meat and potatoes" third-line alongside Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich.
But, Ward has only one goal and six assists for seven points in his 36 games since then.
He is playing nowhere near as well as a player on a contract like his should, and trade speculation surrounding him is already starting to pick up.
Ward needs to be better.
When the Washington Capitals signed Czech netminder Tomas Vokoun to a one-way, $1.5 million contract this summer, it was with the assumption that he would come in and grasp the team's starting goaltender role.
It was also with the assumption that the goalie who had won himself the starting job a season ago with 27 wins in 48 games with a .914 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average would take a step back and backup for a season. He would form half of what would be one of the NHL's best goaltending tandems.
Unfortunately, Michal Neuvirth hasn't performed as well as was hoped, with just six wins from 19 games, a save percentage of .892 and a goals against average at 3.08. If the Caps want their season to continue long into the playoffs, they'll need two goalies at their best, and at the moment, Neuvirth is nowhere near that.
Mike Knuble has played 10 60-plus game seasons in his NHL career. He has 20 or more goals in eight of those. It is curious, then, that he has just three goals and eight assists for 11 points through 48 games this year.
Granted, Knuble has seen a significant cut in his average ice time this season, having dropped from 17.53 a season ago to 14.23 this season. That said, that drop is in large part due to his own performances, rather than because the coaches feel he is no longer capable of being a Top Six forward.
The 39-year-old was signed and re-signed by the Caps in order to help provide a voice in the locker room and chip in on the ice with 15 to 25 goals, but he is way off that pace this season.
The Caps have badly lacked secondary scoring, and that has been in large part due to the struggles of Mike Knuble.
Brooks Laich has over the past few seasons established himself as one of the NHL's elite two-way forwards, and so it was no surprise when the Caps overpaid to lock him up to a six-year contract worth $27 million in June, according to CapGeek.
However, the new season has not turned out quite as hoped for Brooks Laich. His nine goals and 15 assists for 24 points through 48 games put him on track to net just 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points—numbers that would be his worst all round since the 2007-08 season.
Additionally, Laich is a minus-nine, despite being being a combined plus-30 over the past two seasons. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that those dismal numbers have come with him averaging career high numbers in ice time at 19.18.
Laich is one of the organization's more important players, but the way he is playing right now is not helping the team. Brooks Laich desperately needs to improve if the team wants to continue its surge into the playoffs.
Through the first 400 games of his NHL career, Alex Ovechkin scored 273 goals and added 263 assists for an incredible 536 points. In his 119 games since then, the Caps captain has scored just 48 goals and 69 assists for an underwhelming 117 points.
Ovechkin has been much better as of late, but with his lowly 20 goals and 19 assists through 47 games, he isn't even on track to get close to last season's dismal numbers. He is a shadow of the player that for a half a decade ruled the NHL, and if the Caps want to find success, they need their star forward back.
After being suspended three games for leaving his feet on Zbynek Michalek in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ovechkin will not be eligible to return until February 4 when the Caps take on the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
He needs to come back with a bang.
When he is at his best, Alex Ovechkin is the best player in the NHL, bar none. The Caps need him at his best.
Follow Jake Ware on Twitter at @JacobWare95