By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 12:25 AM
CALGARY, ALBERTA - At its conclusion, the Washington Capitals' first major trip of the season can be deemed a success. The Capitals won two of three games in four days while hopping through three time zones and, at times, looked like the confident team that raced to the top of the NHL standings a year ago.
Even with the positive results, however, there may be no better example of Washington's dual nature - exhibiting all the traits of a Stanley Cup contender one day and leaving Coach Bruce Boudreau searching for players executing well enough to be put on the ice the next - than the team's play during this stretch.
Through 11 games, the Capitals have shown their ability to tighten up defensively. They've allowed an average of 2.27 goals per game, down from 2.77 in 2009-10, and their penalty kill has vastly improved to a 90.2 percent success rate, stopping 46 of 51 opposing chances with the man advantage.
But what they're seeking is not a trade-off of greater defense for less offense. The Capitals want both functioning at a high rate consistently - a pursuit that takes considerable focus.
"There should be a balance. It shouldn't be a fine line between the two, but right now it kind of is with us," center David Steckel said. "But by the same token, we still haven't given up many goals. Our defense is improving, but we're still giving up chances and the goalie's coming up huge. We're not trying for a trade-off, but I think we just need to bear down individually a little more to have the type of game we want."
The Capitals started off the excursion with their most complete game of the season in a 3-0 shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes. Every player found a way to contribute, whether by blocking shots, making crisp passes or slowing the oncoming Hurricanes attack in order to preserve a one-goal lead. It wasn't a flashy game, but it was the kind of gritty, tight contest Washington wanted to prove it could win.
But a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild the following night left Boudreau fuming and the players admitting how ugly the nearly 60 minutes of sloppy turnovers, lackadaisical passes and incoherent shifts were. The Capitals held a team meeting the next day and further faced the realities of that poor performance.
In the game that offered some redemption Saturday night against the Calgary Flames, Washington started off slowly but seized control with that elusive balance of offense and defense in the second two periods.
The Capitals coupled a scoring outburst of seven unanswered goals - six in the second period - with a stingy showing in their own end that limited the Flames to just 13 shots in the final 40 minutes after they recorded 16 in the first period.
The 7-2 victory featured a long-awaited arrival by the Capitals' power play, which recorded three goals with the man advantage after only four in the 10 previous games. Alex Ovechkin scored his first and second power-play markers of the season and said that the Capitals needed to be reminded of their offensive prowess.
"We have the skills," Ovechkin said. "I think we have most guys with best skills in the league and sometimes we just didn't use it, we try to play too casual. [Saturday's] game we played very good."
When asked what contributes to the Capitals' precision with passes and unwavering rhythm one night and disarray the next, Mike Green said it's all about Washington's approach.
"I think it's work ethic, to be honest with you," Green said. "Any time we're working hard, we're getting opportunities to score. When we're sitting back and making those lazy plays, that's when we get in trouble and have no chemistry. . . . I think we're getting more and more confident now with the puck. If we can keep that up, we're going to be dangerous."
Capitals notes: Eric Fehr and Mathieu Perreault were healthy scratches against the Flames, while Marcus Johansson (hip) and Tyler Sloan (lower body) were held out with injuries. . . .
Washington plays its next three games at Verizon Center, beginning Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.