As the Washington Capitals fly over California Monday morning and head back East, no one will be looking down and waving. The Capitals return home from their four-game trip with just one point and several disappointing losses, including tonight's 2-1 setback against the San Jose Sharks at San Jose Arena.
The Capitals (2-5-2) are winless in six games (0-5-1), matching their worst slump of last season, when they fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Their play improved as the trip wore on, but the results never came. They return to MCI Center for seven of the next eight games badly in need of a win.
They played well enough tonight to take the home crowd--usually among the most raucous in the league--completely out of the game. The effort was the Capitals' best in weeks, since the last time they faced the Sharks, and it was a game they should have won. They were much more careful with the puck, the forwards did a much better job of getting back. Still, it wasn't enough.
"That's a great shape to be in on the road, but we're just not there yet," Capitals goalie Craig Billington said. "We're working hard and getting over the hump. We're not there yet, but it's coming."
San Jose's Niklas Sundstrom followed his own rebound behind the net and sent the puck to Alexander Korolyuk in front. Brendan Witt couldn't keep Korolyuk from swiping at the puck, and with 15 minutes remaining in regulation, that was the game-winner.
Washington began the season outscoring teams 5-0 in the third period but since has been outscored 12-8 in that period. They have failed to score more than two goals during any of the last six games. They entered the game allowing a goal per game more than the league average.
Nonetheless they mounted the kind of start they were hoping for tonight, playing well enough in the first period to merit a tie heading into the first intermission. That, however, is not the way their luck is going. They ended up behind, 1-0. Stephane Matteau casually chipped the puck off the net in the neutral zone and grinder Ron Sutter beat Washington forward James Black to the puck and sent a weak backhander on goal. Billington made the initial save, but Sutter got another whack at it, just nudging the puck over the line about eight minutes in for his first point of the season.
Capitals Coach Ron Wilson juggled his lines throughout the game, trying to spur more of an attack. Nothing clicked instantly. The improvement was gradual. Peter Bondra nearly knocked in Chris Simon's rebound but was robbed by goalie Steve Shields on the goal line early in the second period. Billington stopped Andy Sutton, who dashed through the crease with ease after two Capitals cut the wrong way.
Bondra and Jeff Halpern each tried to stuff in a rebound on the power play but were rebuffed by Shields. Ulf Dahlen set up Sergei Gonchar, who has yet to score this season, but Shields stopped that, too. Billington answered again, staying with Matteau on a breakaway and forcing the shot wide. Suddenly, chances were coming in bunches, and when Washington's best opportunity arose, they cashed in.
Gonchar, who nearly had his nose broken by an inadvertent cross-check the last time these teams played (no penalty was called) caught a high stick from Marco Sturm, getting under his visor and cutting his nose. The Capitals had a four-minute power play and tied the game about 12 minutes into the second period when Steve Konowalchuk flipped the puck over a sprawled Shields after Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik poked feverishly around the crease.
Capitals Notes: Wilson said he hopes left wing Yogi Svejkovsky can return from his shoulder injury this week, though a quick return is not certain. . . . General Manager George McPhee returns from his one-month suspension Monday morning.