By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009
A year ago, the Washington Capitals arrived at the NHL's all-star break following a frustrating first half that featured the worst start in franchise history and the firing of their coach.
Their situation 12 months later couldn't be any more different.
With a cast of established stars and a host of emerging ones, the Capitals own a 12-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division and are on pace for 108 points, one more point than their best total ever, set in 1985-86. They have done so in exciting fashion, averaging 3.15 goals per game (tied for sixth in the NHL).
But as the players scatter for short vacations and golf getaways during the six-day hiatus, Coach Bruce Boudreau will hunker down in his office at Kettler Capitals Iceplex searching for ways to shore up the Capitals' weaknesses and ensure his team reaches its potential in the second half.
"We need to improve in all areas, really," Boudreau said. "If you're ever satisfied with where you are, then you're not good enough. Other teams are going to improve. So we have to improve, too. There are too many teams right on our [butt]."
Topping Boudreau's list:
· Fixing the penalty kill. The unit ranks 24th, killing off just 79 percent of the short-handed situations the team has faced. The unit has yielded at least one power-play goal in eight consecutive games and seven goals when down two men, the second most. When the unit struggles, it's typically because of players failing to clear the puck when the opportunity presents itself, resulting in tired penalty killers being hemmed in the zone for long stretches.
The return of top penalty killer Tom Poti, who has missed the past 14 games because of a groin injury, could provide a boost. But if the unit continues to struggle, Boudreau promised changes to the personnel. Poti, David Steckel, Jeff Schultz, Boyd Gordon, Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich all average more than three minutes of short-handed ice time per game.
· Holding players accountable for their penalties, which, of course, exacerbates the penalty-killing problems. In past seasons, the Capitals blamed penalty woes on a lack of experience and skill. That's no longer a viable excuse.
They have been assessed the fifth-most minor penalties (239), led by Alex Ovechkin's 28 and Milan Jurcina's 21 (they are the only Capitals who have taken more than 16).
"Part of it is a mental error, and part of it is not moving our feet," Laich said. "Look at Boston. They are first in the conference and have taken the [seventh-] fewest penalties in the league. We've taken the fifth most. It's something we have to address."
· Stemming the flood of goals against. The Capitals have yielded an average of 2.83 goals per game (14th most in the league) and allowed five or more 10 times.
"We need consistency in allowing goals," Boudreau said. "We have winning streaks where we allow one and two a game. Then we have stretches where we go brain dead and allow four and five a game."
Boudreau said it comes down to players executing his system "to a T" and resisting the urge to freelance and improvise.
"Just the way our system is played, we can improve on that so there aren't so many good nights followed by bad nights," he said. "It's got to be more structured on a full-time" basis.
· Solving the inconsistency of effort. The Capitals are 13-3-2 against the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, but have shown a tendency take lesser opponents lightly. The two games before the break were prime examples. They were forced to overtime for the second time by the NHL-worst New York Islanders, and after escaping Nassau Coliseum with a 2-1 win, Ovechkin called the effort "sleepy." The Capitals lost the following night to the 28th-ranked Ottawa Senators in a game Boudreau said his team deserved to lose for being "stupid, dumb and selfish."
It's Boudreau's responsibility to motivate and prepare his charges. It's players' responsibility, though, to listen to their coach.
"The lesson to be learned is you can't take anyone lightly in this league," General Manager George McPhee said. "Even against the teams that have struggled, it's tough to get points. You have to work hard all game long. It's a lesson that, if we haven't learned it after this [losing in Ottawa], we had better soon."
· Playing better on the road, where they will contest 16 of their remaining 34 games. The Capitals have shown improvement in this area, winning six of the past nine away games. But they are still just 11-12-2 outside of the District, and are the only team among the top 10 in the East with a sub-.500 road record.
There are many factors for their struggles away from Verizon Center, but none stands out more than goals against. The Capitals have given up 89, a total that's tied with the Islanders for most in the league. (That's also 40 more than Boston.)
So while the Capitals have plenty to toast after a record first half, there's much work left to be done as they set their sights on clinching a second straight division title and catching the Bruins, who hold a 10-point edge in the conference and, interestingly, are their first opponent coming out of the break.
"The first 48 games have gone well for us," McPhee said. "We've been through a lot of injuries. But we hope to be healthy coming out of the break and play even better in the final 34 games of the season."