Adam Oates calls it a goose egg. Peter Bondra refers to it as a doughnut. Regardless of what it's called, no NHL player wants a zero in the goal column, especially after six weeks of play. But that's what nine Washington Capitals were facing at the start of last week, Oates included.
Now that number is down to five regulars. Oates found the net on a breakaway Thursday night against the New York Rangers, then scored another goal and assisted on one in Saturday's 4-2 victory over New Jersey. Defenseman Ken Klee scored his first of the season Thursday night and netted the game-winner Saturday night. Dmitri Mironov scored his first goal Saturday and James Black did the same thing, firing into an empty net in the final seconds.
Coach Ron Wilson was happy to see so many players ending slumps. He's hoping the goal-scoring thrust becomes contagious and the offense becomes better spread around the forward lines and defense.
"That's the way it goes," Klee said. "Goal scoring is a game of confidence. When you get confidence the puck starts bouncing your way, whether it's luck or you're confident and maybe you do a small thing a little bit different. That's the way it goes--you get a couple of guys scoring who haven't been, like myself, and then it starts to come for all of us."
Two lines carried the offense for the first month of the season. Bondra took the load on the top line while Jan Bulis (who missed Saturday's game with a neck injury) and Steve Konowalchuk had goals from the second line (their hard-luck line mate, Richard Zednik, creates chances but has one goal on 41 shots). The third and fourth lines scored infrequently; Calle Johansson was the only defenseman to net a goal until Klee scored Thursday.
But in the last few weeks Oates has elevated his game. Checking line center Andrei Nikolishin is one of five Capitals without a goal, but his new wingers--Joe Sacco and Chris Simon--have been among the team's most productive players this month. Fourth-line center Jeff Halpern is getting time with the top lines and contributing offensively. Ulf Dahlen is making strides, though he has yet to score after spending the past two seasons in Sweden.
"Nobody likes having a zero there," Oates said. "And a lot of times if it goes on too long, obviously you think about it, myself included. When you have a drought, it's on your mind and you need that first one to get you over the hump and relax. And when guys get one, then they can relax.
"A lot of guys don't necessarily have the opportunity to get too many goals. They're out to play more of a defensive role and Blackie, even though it's an empty-netter, it's a big goal and it gets rid of a goose egg and its very important to him."
Defense-minded defensemen such as Brendan Witt and Joe Reekie (limited to eight games because of injury) could go all 82 games without scoring and still have an effective season. However, Sergei Gonchar--who joins Dahlen, Nikolishin, Reekie and Witt in the Unlucky Five--was counted on to be a big part of the offense, especially on the power play, after posting 21 goals last season, 13 of them with the man advantage. Gonchar went 14 games without scoring last season and hasn't scored in 15 games this season.
Undoubtedly Gonchar is looking at his statistics every day, as many teammates have before him. He'll be looking at the standings too. No one cares who scores when games are won, and the Capitals have victories in four of their last six games, and played well enough to at least tie the other two.
"If you asked any guy in this room if it was important if they have a goal or a win, I guarantee you they would say a win," Simon said. "It's great to score and great to contribute that way, but we all play the game to win.
"That's the most important thing--that at the end of the night we get two points. We want to win hockey games, we want to make the playoffs and we want to do well in the playoffs. Personal goals are not ahead of the team."