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Ovechkin and Capitals are playing hockey differently: Fewer goals, more defense

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 6:50 PM

The Washington Capitals seem to be trying something different this season.

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Last season, the Caps were an exciting, high-scoring crew. They had the best regular-season record in the National Hockey League (121 points) and were first in goals scored, slapping in 3.82 goals a game. Their power play - that's when the other team is missing a player because of a penalty - was tops, too. The Caps scored more than 25 percent of the time when they had an extra man on the ice.

After their 50th game (out of 82) on Monday night, here's where the Caps stood this season among the 30 teams in the NHL:

Record: Sixth, with 63 points

Goals scored: 14th, with 2.76 goals a game

Power play: 18th, scoring 17.4 percent of the time

The Caps are scoring one fewer goal a game. That's a huge difference. The Caps' star scorer, forward Alex Ovechkin, is struggling, too. Ovechkin, who has scored 50 or more goals in four of his five seasons with the Caps, had only 19 goals through Monday. At that pace, AO won't reach 40 goals this season.

Ovechkin is still getting plenty of shots. He leads the NHL in shots taken so far this season. The problem is that Ovechkin's shots find the back of the net only 8.4 percent of the time. That's way off from last season, when the superstar scored on 13.6 percent of his shots.

Of course, even with all their great scoring statistics last season, the Caps and Ovechkin bombed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, losing in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens. So maybe it was time to try something different.

Championship teams in the NHL usually play tight defense so they win close playoff games. The Capitals' defense has improved. Last season the Caps had the 16th-rated defense and allowed 2.77 goals a game. So far this season, the Washington defense is seventh in the NHL, allowing 2.48 goals a game.

Goalies are always important in hockey, and the Caps have some good young ones. Semyon Varlamov is only 22, but he is among the league leaders in keeping the puck out of the net. Varlamov's only problem has been staying healthy. He has missed a bunch of games because of nagging injuries.

It's the same story with Michal Neuvirth, the Caps' other 22-year-old goalie. He has been solid when he has been healthy. Braden Holtby - he's only 21 years old - has filled in at goalie for some games.

So will the Caps' different way of playing - more defense and fewer goals - work in the playoffs?

I'm not so sure. They haven't looked good against the top teams this season. But I'm sure of one thing: I miss the old, high-scoring Capitals.

Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's sports opinion column each week. His latest sports novel, "Real Hoops," will be published next month.


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