The Washington Capitals went through their second long practice in as many days yesterday, spending time on one-on-one drills, passing and line play. Coach Bryan Murray then called his players into a team meeting, and, by the time they play the Montreal Canadiens at 8:05 tonight at Capital Centre, there will have been talks with individual players and at least one video session.
The skull sessions and extra work come at a time when the Capitals have been tied by Buffalo and beaten by Winnipeg in their last two games, have dropped back to .500 (22-22-6) and will play 20 of their last 30 games against Patrick Division opponents.
Those games will make or break a season for a team that after 50 games hasn't been more than three games above or two games below .500 and still has a reasonable chance of finishing anywhere from first to last.
Asked if the practices were a result of his anger over a 3-2 loss to Winnipeg Tuesday, Murray said: "Absolutely. We've had a lot of things to go over. We've done a lot of activity drills and a lot of team things. There are things we aren't doing as well as we could, and we're emphasizing them."
He said he watched a tape of the Winnipeg loss twice and decided his team needs to work harder at getting the puck out of its end of the ice and also at converting more of its scoring chances around the opponent's net.
"I thought that a couple of years ago we moved the puck out of our own end as well as any team in the NHL," he said. "That's the thing we're working on now. It's not just because Montreal has so much speed. It's because of some things Winnipeg did. We've talked about it most of the year but haven't emphasized it as much as we should.
"Speed is one thing we should have going for us. We have some pretty quick players, and we've got to get that step and take advantage of our speed."
But he also said the Winnipeg tape showed him some things he hadn't seen from his spot behind the bench. First, some of his players -- Peter Sundstrom, Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley -- performed well. Second, so did the Jets.
"I don't mean to take anything away from Winnipeg," he said. "They did a lot of things right. They forced us to dump the puck out a lot of times. But every time we dumped it in, we ended up getting a chance to score. Almost every time we'd end up around the net. We just didn't score."
He has wondered aloud several times why his team seems to play so crisply and aggressively against the good teams and so poorly against average and below-average teams. He did so again yesterday, but also gave his team a vote of confidence.
"This is a good hockey team," he said, "and when they're challenged they play their best. That's why I was disappointed the other night. I didn't mean to put down Winnipeg, but we just didn't play as well as we're capable of playing. No one intentionally goes out not ready to play, but sometimes you fool yourself. Something negative happens early in the game, and things get turned around. You've got to spend some time preparing. You can't do it 10 minutes before the game."
When the Capitals arrived at practice Wednesday, they found something new added to their practice goal posts: targets. To remind his players of where they ought to be aiming the puck, Murray had yellow circles hung in the corner of each goal -- a not-so-subtle reminder that the odds of scoring are better if the goalie has to move to reach the shot.
But the Capitals say they know all of this. They know they should move the puck out of their end more quickly, that they should be making more of their shots and that they should be better than .500.
"I don't think he needed to send us any messages," Dave Christian said. "We want to work hard, and we expect to work hard. But I don't know why we aren't playing well. We still seem to be making the big mistake that costs us a game."
Regardless, the easy part of the schedule is over. Of their remaining 30 games, four are against the Flyers, five against the New York Islanders and three against the Pittsburgh Penquins. In between, there will be games with the Detroit Red Wings and Calgary Flames -- both first-place teams.
"We don't have any more nights off," Murray said. "There are going to be a lot more one-goal games. It's right there for us. We can make it or we can be in trouble."
Rangers 5, Flyers 2:
Kelly Kisio had a goal and an assist in a four-goal second period in Philadelphia. He scored his 16th goal of the season, at 5:41, to break a 1-1 tie and assisted on Ulf Dahlen's ninth at 16:37 to provide a 4-1 lead.
Devils 6, Penguins 3:
John MacLean's third goal of the game broke a third-period tie in East Rutherford, N.J., and helped the Devils' new coach, Jim Schoenfeld, to his first victory. Aaron Broten had a goal and three assists as the Devils overcame a 3-0 deficit and broke a five-game losing streak.
Blues 9, North Stars 1:
In St. Louis, Doug Gilmour's second career hat trick and assist increased the Blues' winning streak to four games.
Bruins 3, Nordiques 0:
In Boston, Reggie Lemelin enjoyed his third shutout this season, facing only 19 shots.