Capitals face the Senators as they seek to end run of poor starts

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 12:07 AM

The Ottawa Senators visit the Washington Capitals on Sunday desperate to win after dropping seven of their previous eight contests. The home team, owner of a three-game losing streak, is not inclined to offer much sympathy.

For the Capitals, the key to ending their own struggles and staying afloat in the tight Eastern Conference standings may lie in how well they start the game.

Over the past six weeks, a stretch dating from a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 1, the Capitals have developed a dangerous habit of falling behind early on. They've scored first in only five of their past 20 games and have looked uncharacteristically tentative often, most recently in the three consecutive losses heading into this meeting with Ottawa.

"For whatever reason, we're waiting for the other team to dictate what we have to do instead of initiating the game plan," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Obviously [getting off to better starts is] what we have to start doing. It's a lot easier said than done."

In a 4-2 loss to league-leading Vancouver on Friday, despite scoring the first goal for the first time in six games, Washington submitted to the Canucks' style of play for the majority of two periods before responding with a rally that fell short. The Capitals pressured constantly throughout the third period, playing with an energy and emotion they have lacked for entire games.

Washington is tied with New Jersey and Edmonton, which own the worst record in the Eastern and Western conferences, respectively, for the fewest first-period goals (28). The Capitals have given up the first goal in more than half of their games this season (27) and are 12-12-3 when doing so. That has translated into 21 games in which they've trailed at the end of the first period, going 10-9-2 on those occasions.

"You can't wait until you're down 3-1 every game until you start playing, start attacking. You have to have that attack mode, that mentality, right out of the gate and try to put teams on their heels. That's what we used to do," left wing Brooks Laich said. "Now we're getting behind a goal or two and we have to play catch-up - being behind is sort of kick-starting our team. We have to have that energy right off the drop of the puck in the first period."

During the 2009-10 regular season, the Capitals led the NHL in goals for in the first period and outscored opponents 92-67 in the opening frame. Washington trailed heading into the second period 15 times last season.

The sluggish start alone is not responsible for all of Washington's inconsistencies, whether during this three-game stretch or going back to the eight-game losing streak in December. Combined with the Capitals' lower goal-scoring totals, however, it makes coming from behind a much larger feat than it might have been in the past. When asked how to make sure the team plays with gusto from the drop of the puck, the Capitals said it's up to each individual to hold himself accountable.

"It's been going on for maybe a month or six weeks, it's something that needs to be addressed and it only comes down to the individual," Laich said. "The individual needs to be ready to play when the puck drops. It's nothing the coaching staff can do, it's nothing other players can do. You as a professional have to be ready to play at the start of a hockey game."

Boudreau hopes that after catching a look against Vancouver at how they perform when fired up late, the Capitals will be able to build off that. If Washington can take that energy into Sunday's contest against the Senators, it may be the stepping stone necessary to rejuvenate the Capitals as they head into a week on the road.

"It's something that has to be there," Boudreau said. "You have to have the passion and the want to come to the rink every day and realize what a great opportunity we have to be doing what we're doing."

Capitals note: Eric Fehr injured his right shoulder in a collision with David Steckel in the neutral zone during Washington's 4-2 loss to Vancouver and had his arm in a sling on Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Boudreau said the right wing will miss three to four weeks.

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