The Washington Capitals eliminated their April bugaboo last spring with their playoff performance. Now, they are making strides toward ridding themselves of the label "slow starters."
Washington won its fourth straight game Saturday night, beating the New York Islanders, 5-2, at Nassau Coliseum. They have won seven of their last nine games and only played poorly in a 9-4 loss at Calgary. The New York Rangers have lost two in a row after winning 11 of 12 and are in first place in the Patrick Division with 22 points. The Capitals are four points back and one behind the New Jersey Devils.
After playing seven games in 12 nights, the Capitals will play twice this week. They will visit Quebec City Tuesday night before playing host to Buffalo Saturday.
The Capitals' 9-7 record is not that remarkable, but their best previous 16-game record was 8-6-2 in the 1985-86 season.
Saturday, the Capitals continued the strong defensive play that has keyed their other wins as they limited the Islanders' scoring opportunities. Goalies Mike Liut, Don Beaupre and Jim Hrivnak have made some excellent saves, but they haven't had to re-invent the position.
"At the start, we seemed to be back on our heels," said the Islanders' Don Maloney. The Islanders never recovered and never played as well as Friday night when they pinned the Rangers with their first home loss. Bob Rouse Rod Langway and John Purves -- hardly the most obvious Capitals' goal-scorers -- gave Washington a 3-0 lead. It was Purves first NHL goal. Dale Hunter scored a power-play goal in the second period and Kevin Hatcher scored an empty-net goal with eight seconds left in the game.
Pat LaFontaine scored the two Islanders goals, but that was all New York could get against Hrivnak, who started his first game since being recalled from Baltimore to replace the injured Don Beaupre.
"There were a couple situations where he made real big saves with a lot of traffic in front of the net," said Coach Terry Murray.
The Capitals have been forechecking reasonably well, but goal production has been lacking from some players. It won't become a crisis as long as they hold the opposition to 20-25 shots and two goals a game.
"If you play with a team concept and everybody identifies that and works hard, the top players are going to emerge and become stars anyway," Murray said. "The whole message has got to be 'team.' If you do that, execute and believe that everybody can do their job, then the top guys will eventually get the big goal."
John Druce has started well and is tied for the team lead in points (14) with defenseman Kevin Hatcher. Fellow defenseman Calle Johansson is next with 12.
Kelly Miller scored three goals in the first four games, but just one since. Mike Ridley has 11 points, but no goals in the last eight games. Rouse, a defensive-oriented defenseman, has more goals (two) and points (eight) than right wing Steve Leach. Michal Pivonka scored the game-winner against Los Angeles Friday night, but it was just his fourth goal. Peter Zezel had five goals, but all on the power play, when he was injured.
"I keep telling them that the goals are going to come," said Murray.
For now, defense will have to carry the day.