Millions And Millions Of Problems

Seventeen games into the season, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals find themselves on the bottom of the NHL standings.
Seventeen games into the season, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals find themselves on the bottom of the NHL standings. (Associated Press)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

After the Washington Capitals spent millions of dollars to acquire three free agents over the summer, expectations grew exponentially among team officials, players and fans. Those sentiments were heightened when, during training camp, owner Ted Leonsis declared that "the rebuild is over."

Yet just five weeks into a season that began with such promise, the Capitals find themselves in a state of "desperation," veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig said. Beset by injuries to key personnel and mired in a season-long scoring slump, the Capitals, losers of five of their past six games, find themselves tied for last in the NHL with 13 standings points, seven behind last season's total through 17 games.

As such, their margin for error is slim to none, placing greater importance on the stretch of 10 games in 17 days that begins tonight against the Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla.

"There's no question: There's desperation now, even though it's not even 20 games yet," Kolzig said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "Anytime you go on a winless streak that we've been on, you've got to turn the tables and do the exact opposite to get back into it. For the good teams, the losing streaks never outlast the winning streaks.

"The bottom line is we have to put a streak together."

Of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs last season, only Ottawa had as few as 13 points after as many games. But the talented and deep Senators won nine of their next 11 and eventually earned a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.

After three consecutive last-place finishes in the Southeast Division, it's a daunting task for the Capitals, but almost everyone in the organization maintains it can be done with the current players and coaching staff. But, as General Manager George McPhee acknowledged, such a turnaround is contingent on injured players getting -- and staying -- healthy and on struggling players figuring out how to score on a regular basis.

"You hate to use injuries as an excuse, but it's a fact," said McPhee, in his 10th season as general manager. "The area we're concerned about is scoring, and the injuries we've had have been to the guys who generate offense. And when we see them sitting on the sidelines instead of being on the ice, it's frustrating."

Chris Clark, the team captain, added: "It's going to be difficult, but it's still early. It's very early in the season. If this was January or February, it would not be as realistic. It's doable. Teams have done it."

The offseason addition of free agents Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti provided the Capitals with more skill and depth than the previous two seasons, when Washington spent less on player costs than any team in the league. At about $39 million, the payroll is higher this season, but it still ranks among the league's lowest, leaving the Capitals ill equipped to handle a rash of injuries to important players over an extended amount of time.

That's exactly what happened. At one point last month, the Capitals were without Clark, Poti and Alexander Semin -- a trio that scored a combined 74 goals last season. Coach Glen Hanlon has had a full lineup for just two games this season.

Poti, the team's leader in ice time (25 minutes 35 seconds per game), returned from a six-game absence because of a strained groin muscle three games ago, but is not yet 100 percent. Clark, who missed eight games with a lacerated ear after being struck on the side of his head by a slap shot by Alex Ovechkin, is set to come back tonight. And Semin, who has missed seven straight games and 13 total because of a sprained right ankle, has begun skating and could return within a week.

Without Semin, Clark and Poti, players with less skill and experience have been forced into significant roles. At one point, career minor leaguer Joe Motzko went from riding the bus in the American Hockey League to Ovechkin's line and the first-unit power play. The injury woes have also forced Hanlon to juggle his forward combinations from game to game, and sometimes shift to shift, preventing the development of continuity.

"All teams lose top players, but it's who replaces them and what they do," Hanlon said. "In Ottawa, they lose [Jason] Spezza and [Mike] Fisher steps up. We're without Semin's goals, so we need someone to step up."

One area where the Capitals have improved is on defense. They've received solid goaltending on most nights and are yielding an average of 2.82 goals (16th in the league), compared with last year's 3.35 (26th). Shots against are also down from 33.3 (29th) last season to 29.9 (20th) this season.

But goals are also down, and special teams are struggling, too. The Capitals have scored 40 goals, down from 54 through the same number of games a year ago. That's partly because of the injuries, partly because of slumping scorers.

Ovechkin leads the team with 11 goals and 19 points, putting him on pace for 92 points, the same amount he totaled last season. Nylander has 16 points and Kozlov has 12. After that, no Capital is in double digits.

"This has caught me totally off guard," Hanlon said. "I never thought with this group of players that [scoring] would be an issue. We're behind last year's pace. That, to me, is mystifying."

Clark added, "When we have a legitimate scoring chance, we have to bear down."

The power-play and penalty-kill units, meantime, haven't been consistent, either, checking in at 15.8 percent (20th) and 79.8 percent (21st), respectively.

"It's our special teams -- again," Kolzig said. "It's a matter of getting it done on special teams."

With the team's attendance at 25th in the league, the Capitals can't afford to squander the promise of the offseason. Despite this season's early shortcomings, Clark and Kolzig, the team's vocal leaders, said the players are still attuned to Hanlon and believe in his system.

"All of us feel guilty that we're at where we're at, because we've got a good coach, a players' coach," Kolzig said. "He's preaching the right message, we're just not delivering."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company