Reeling Capitals Hit the Road

Coach Glen Hanlon has seen key injuries to Chris Clark and Alexander Semin disrupt the season.
Coach Glen Hanlon has seen key injuries to Chris Clark and Alexander Semin disrupt the season. "This is a huge, huge road trip," Hanlon said. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

When the Washington Capitals left town yesterday, they did so knowing that their success or failure on the three-game road trip could go a long way toward determining the direction of their season.

Yes, it's already gotten to that point for the injury-plagued club, which has dropped two consecutive games and eight of the past 10, and is tied for the fewest points in the NHL with 10.

The Capitals (5-8-0) open the trip tonight against Southeast Division-leading Carolina (8-3-3) before continuing to Atlanta (5-9-0) tomorrow and Ottawa (11-1-0) on Thursday.

"This is a huge, huge road trip," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "I like the fact that we're playing three really good teams. It's a big test for us, there's no way around it."

There's also no arguing how badly Hanlon's team is missing forwards Chris Clark and Alexander Semin and defenseman Tom Poti, all of whom are sidelined with injuries. It was unclear after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex if any of the three will be available this week.

Clark (lacerated ear, dizziness) and Poti (groin muscle strain) joined their teammates on the ice and participated fully. Semin (sprained ankle) did not skate.

Clark appeared up to speed during the 1 1/2 -hour long session, but the rugged right wing wasn't assigned to a line and didn't travel afterward.

He plans to skate on his own this morning before deciding whether to meet the team at some point.

"Each day I've noticed improvement," said Clark, who added that he's had more than 60 stitches removed from his ear in recent days. "I'm keeping my options open. I absolutely hate watching, absolutely hate it."

Poti, the Capitals' leader in ice time, grimaced occasionally, more during strenuous drills. Afterward, he said he felt about 65 percent. He accompanied the team, though his status for tonight's game won't be determined until after the morning skate.

"It's not where I want it to be," said Poti, who has missed five games. "We'll just have to see how it feels after getting a good workout today."

Semin's situation remains murky. He's missed three games in a row, and nine total, since turning his right ankle in a preseason game.

Asked whether he anticipated Semin being sidelined for several more weeks, Hanlon said he did not.

"He just keeps getting set back," Hanlon said. "We're hoping he's back skating this week, and we'll go from there."

Without three of their most productive offensive players -- Clark, Semin and Poti accounted for 74 goals last season -- the Capitals' difficulty finding the net has been magnified.

In 13 games, they are averaging 2.54 goals, which ranks 20th in the league.

They have only a pair of goals the past two games, and half of their losses have come by one goal. Their 33 goals, in fact, are 20 fewer than the Hurricanes' league-leading total.

All of yesterday's practice was dedicated to getting the offense on track. After warming up, the forwards were sent to one end of the rink, where they focused on creating traffic in front of the net. At the opposite end, the defensemen worked on point-shot accuracy, firing pucks through a maze of orange cones and Gatorade coolers, while assistant coach Jay Leach disrupted the shots with his stick. The Capitals have had 55 shots blocked the past two games alone.

"The overriding theme for us is [a] lack of scoring," Hanlon said. "That's the main thing. Defensively we've made as big an improvement as any team. We don't have those chaotic games where we're running around. But there's a price for scoring goals and, at times, we're not doing that."

Added veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig: "You have to first get ugly goals to get things going. You have to get people in front and throw pucks at the net.

"You do that, and anything is possible. It can go in off a defenseman, the goalie could be screened," he said. "You get a couple of goals like that, everyone starts feeling better about themselves and the confidence level goes up."

Kolzig also pointed to two reasons why the Capitals might enjoy a turnaround rather than a meltdown this week: They've already defeated the Hurricanes and Thrashers, and for a reason he couldn't explain, the team's performances away from Verizon Center have been crisper.

"We can do it," Kolzig said. "If you want to have any playoff aspirations, championship aspirations, you have to win the big games on the road."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company