By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:03 AM
At this time last year, the Washington Capitals were the toast of the NHL. Well on their way to accumulating the most points during the regular season, they treated opponents at times as incidental during their rampage toward the Presidents' Trophy, often scoring five or more goals a game. The club's offensive-minded superstars, meantime, were adept at carrying out the frantic pace representative of Coach Bruce Boudreau's system.
These days, as the Capitals acclimate to a more defensive posture implemented with the playoffs in mind, no longer are they at the front, or even especially near it, when it comes to goals or points in the standings. Those benchmarks instead belong to the Vancouver Canucks, whom Washington plays on Friday night at Verizon Center.
The Canucks lead the NHL with 62 points and are second in total goals with 143, averaging 3.3 per game. They are second overall in power-play percentage (24.3), tied for second in the West in points on the road and are 9-1-1 on the road over the past 11 games.
"That doesn't matter to us," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said of the offensive superlatives that have Vancouver in line for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and in the thick of the playoff discussion. "We did it last year. We ran away with it . . . and it got us nowhere. They're scoring, great. Whatever. Have fun with it, but for us it's just a big game. It's a good challenge against a team that has points, I think in 17 in a row or something like that."
Vancouver is in fact 14-1-3 over its franchise record-setting stretch, including a 6-2 victory over the reigning Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers, who have the most points in the East. Their 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday night was their first defeat in regulation since Dec. 5. About the only troubling annotation to Vancouver's points streak is that it has two losses to Detroit, its closest pursuer in the West, one in overtime and the other in a shootout.
Brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin are among the most responsible for the Canucks' ascent to the top of the NHL standings. They have 55 points each, tied for third in the league, and their combined total is 26 points more than that of Capitals franchise players Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who is without a goal in a career-worst 18 consecutive games.
Center Henrik Sedin, last season's most valuable player and leading point scorer, has 16 points over his past 11 games and five points in his last four. He leads the league with 46 assists. Left wing Daniel Sedin has 12 points in nine games, including seven goals. His 25 goals are tied for third in the league.
"Oh god," Boudreau said when asked about Vancouver's high-scoring siblings. "All I know is they were eye-opening when we played them in Vancouver last year. They were so good knowing where each other is. We're going to have to be at the absolute top of our game, yet their second line has got a 25-goal scorer too. They're a very mirror image of what we were doing at this point last year."
It's hardly been as tidy for the Capitals after 44 games this season. They have 55 points and are in second place in the Southeast Division. After the same number of games last season, the Capitals had 60 points and were on a rapid pace toward securing a third consecutive division crown.
Washington has lost two straight, both to division opponents on the road. Most recent was a 3-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. It was the fifth time in 25 games the Capitals have been shut out after failing to score just four times in 190 previous games. It also was the second time in eight days recently acquired Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, 41, blanked Washington.
The Capitals appear headed for a showdown with another surging goalie in the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who did not start Thursday night's 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers in anticipation of playing Friday. Luongo's career- and franchise-high regulation unbeaten streak reached 11 games Tuesday in a 4-3 shootout victory over the New York Islanders. It was the first time since before Christmas that Luongo yielded three goals or more.
Engaging the team with the best record in the league and a goalie in top form has the Capitals emphasizing a more forceful beginning, not just Friday but in subsequent games as well. Washington has been behind 2-0 in its past two games, and those uninspired starts proved too much to overcome even for a roster filled with 20-goal scorers last season.
"Get a good start and score that first goal," defenseman Mike Green said. "I mean we've been playing well defensively, holding off to one or two goals a game, but we need to come out have better starts and get that goal and hold on to that lead. When we've done that we've been very successful, and we just need to continue at that, but it starts Friday. We've got to get on another run here."