Capitals are struggling with faceoffs

Brooks Laich has won nine of 15 faceoffs this season, but as a team Washington ranks just 25th in the league. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Brooks Laich has won nine of 15 faceoffs this season, but as a team Washington ranks just 25th in the league. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:36 AM

For stretches of time in an eventual 2-1 win Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals couldn't manage to escape their own zone. The New York Islanders poured on the pressure and managed to maintain a territorial advantage, thanks largely in part to a dominating effort in the faceoff circle.

The Islanders won 13 of the first 17 draws in the third period against the Capitals, who are not experiencing their usual effectiveness on draws early on this season.

Through four games, Washington has won just 46.2 percent of its faceoffs and is ranked 25th in the league. Over the past two seasons, a key part of the Capitals' strength in puck possession - which, in turn, helps generate more offensive chances - has been their dominance on the draw. In 2009-10, they finished the regular season ranked sixth with 51.5 percent, and in 2008-09, they were seventh with 51.7.

"The more possession you have of the puck, the better, and for our team, the less we play in our own end, the better," said Boyd Gordon, one of the Capitals' usual faceoff specialists who has won just 20 of 48 (41.7 percent) in three games. "It's not the end-all to creating offense with a team like ours, but it does mean a lot to making sure we don't give other teams too much time in our end."

In home games against the Islanders and Ottawa Senators this week, the Capitals prevailed on 16 of 39 draws in their defensive zone.

They won no more than 41 percent of the overall draws in either game.

Nicklas Backstrom (38 of 70) is the Capitals' top faceoff man among the five players who have taken more than 20 draws.

David Steckel (11 of 22, 50 percent) and Tomas Fleischmann (18 of 42, 42.9) round out the top three.

"Our guys that are supposed to be winning faceoffs at a regular basis, that were in the top 10 in the league, are nowhere near there," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We have to get better with that."

Ups and downs

Despite tallying an assist on the game-winning goal against the Islanders, rookie defenseman John Carlson did not have his strongest outing Wednesday, when he had a trio of giveaways and a moment when he was slow to challenge New York's Nino Niederreiter on the game's first goal.

Given Carlson's meteoric rise through junior hockey and the American Hockey League, it's easy to forget that he's still 20 years old. That reality is why Boudreau wants to make sure they keep things in perspective for the young blue-liner, who entering Thursday was tied for the NHL lead among all defensemen in scoring with five points (one goal, four assists).

"He has moments of greatness, but he's not there," Boudreau said Thursday. "We just want to make sure that he gets better and he doesn't think he's right there. We showed him clips of all his mistakes this morning and he's going to get better, but it's a process."

Varlamov 'ready'

Boudreau said that, barring a setback in Friday's practice, he expects Semyon Varlamov to dress when the Capitals play the Predators in Nashville on Saturday, but he wouldn't divulge whether the netminder would make his regular season debut.

Sidelined by a groin injury at the start of the season for the second straight year, Varlamov hasn't played since he stopped all 20 shots he faced in the first half of the Capitals' first exhibition game Sept. 22 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 22-year-old said he is ready to go after playing it safe with his injury over the past few weeks.

"It was tough to start this way," Varlamov said. "But it wasn't as bad as before, and I feel good now. I'm ready to get back."

Veteran goaltender Dany Sabourin was placed on waivers Thursday, and if he clears at noon Friday, he'll be assigned to the AHL's Hershey Bears.

Boudreau said the status of Washington's other injured players remains undetermined for the game in Nashville. He said he hopes Mike Green, who missed the final five minutes against the Islanders with a "stinger," Tom Poti (lower-body injury) and Matt Bradley (lower body) will practice Friday.

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