By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Twelve hours after another disheartening defeat, one in which the home team was subjected to a booming round of boos, the unsmiling faces of Washington Capitals players and coaches conveyed the collective disappointment as they gathered yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
The seriousness of their situation, it seemed, had finally hit them in the wake of Monday's 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. The loss was the Capitals' fourth straight, eighth in nine games and seventh by one goal. Instead of busting out of their slump against a similarly struggling Southeast Division opponent, they had slipped deeper into it, remaining mired in last place in the NHL with 13 points in 20 games.
"I thought we played three games" against the Panthers, Coach Glen Hanlon said after putting his players through an up-tempo, hour-long practice. "I thought in the first period we were extremely tight. I thought the second period was our worst period [this season]. And I thought the third period, we looked like a pretty good hockey team. It was a winnable game."
But, as the Capitals again discovered, playing with energy and discipline in the third period isn't enough to offset a tentative and mistake-riddled first and second, particularly when the team is 1-10-1 when the opponent scores first.
After an in-depth video review of the defeat, Hanlon shook up the forward line combinations and defensive pairs, then went about fixing what he's identified as the club's most pressing problems: turnovers (the score sheet from Monday's game indicated 12, but video showed at least 22, veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig said) as well as too-long shifts and sloppy line changes, both of which, not-so-coincidentally, lead to turnovers.
Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Michael Nylander, among others, were the biggest offenders of extending their shifts against the Panthers.
"Once you get past the 40-50 second mark, if you're going all out, you're physically and mentally tired [and] turnovers happen," captain Chris Clark said. "Guys want to win so bad, they want to try so hard and help the team so much that sometimes you overextend your shift. But it's better to get fresh legs out there."
On Monday, a giveaway deep in the Panthers' end at the end of a long shift led to Florida's third goal, then a poorly executed line change contributed to the Panthers' fourth score.
"There was a certain point [this season] where we could say, 'Poor us, we're playing well, and we're doing all these things well, but we're just not scoring," Hanlon said. "But the past couple of games that hasn't been the case. That's not other teams beating us, that's us beating ourselves."
Six weeks into the season, Hanlon's search for the right mix up front and on the blue line also continued. The Capitals rank 28th in the league in goals per game (2.3), and Hanlon hopes another lineup change might help jump-start the offense.
When the Capitals host the resurgent Atlanta Thrashers tonight, Viktor Kozlov is set to return to center and skate between Ovechkin and Clark on the top line. Tomas Fleischmann, Nylander and Semin are going to skate on the second, and rookie Nicklas Backstrom will center Matt Pettinger and Brooks Laich on the third.
On defense, Brian Pothier will play with John Erskine instead of Jeff Schultz, and Schultz will be paired with Shaone Morrisonn. Mike Green and Tom Poti remain together.
"It's obviously better to play with the same people," Clark said. "But if it's not working you've got to change things up."
Clearly, it's not working, at least over the past 17 games, of which the Capitals have lost 14. On Monday, the generously announced crowd of 13,411 at Verizon Center voiced its displeasure.
No NHL team has fewer home wins than Washington's two.
"We're a pretty strong group," Hanlon said. "We've got ourselves in this position and we'll battle out of it together. We believe in what we're doing."
Clark added: "It's not the coaches; it's the players. They go out and get us the information we need. We just have to execute it. It has to come from inside this room. No one else is going to get us out of this."