The Washington Capitals have dramatically improved their play over the last 10 games, but no change has been more startling than their complete defensive turnaround. They hobbled through the first month of the season unable to prevent teams from feasting on their net, unable to kill penalties. All of that has changed.

The Capitals allowed more than three goals in five of their first nine games; they have yielded more than three goals once in the past 10 games. They failed to hold an opponent under two goals in their first nine games; they have held the opposition under two goals in three of the past 10 games (including their first shutout of the season Saturday in Boston) and have held opponents to two goals or fewer in six of the last 10 games. The Capitals have not allowed a power-play goal in 12 games (53 chances).

Washington's goals-against average in the first nine games--3.74; Washington's goals-against average in the past 10 games--2.14.

"The first 10 games our defensive zone coverage was pretty awful," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "We worked on that out West and played better in Anaheim and San Jose and lost those games, and since we got back I think we've been playing very well in the defensive zone, and when you take care of that, you win hockey games."

The goaltending has been strong all season. The difference is the play of the forwards and the defensemen. The season turned during a poor trip in the West. They returned from that trip 2-6-2 and are 5-2-2 (13 points) since. The forwards showed a willingness to stick with Coach Ron Wilson's system, picking up their forechecking and backchecking and playing a more physical game, as have the defensemen.

Still, Wilson believes there is work to be done. He's taking a hard line with the defense and the forwards, shortening his bench in the clutch. Wilson has gone with just three lines in the third period of close games and is doing something similar with the defense, effectively benching whichever two defensemen are least effective early in games.

"We're in a push mode right now, trying to get as many points as we can," Wilson said. "And the guys playing well have enough down time that we can get away with four defensemen, and I think even when some of our regular defensemen come back from injuries that's how we'll approach this--four guys will play more than the other two.

"I'll determine after one period who is playing well and we'll go with those guys. It's the 'What have you done in the first period for me lately' kind of strategy, and if you don't play well in the first period then you might not even play in the second or third."

The defensemen have vastly improved their overall game--led by the pairing of Calle Johansson and Witt--playing more physical and smarter hockey, doing it on nights when as many as three regular defensemen are out with injury. The Capitals are playing as a team.

"The defense is playing better, but it's everybody," said Johansson, arguably the team's most valuable player. "It's not just the defensemen. . . . Give a lot of credit to the forwards, they've been playing great defense and smart hockey and it makes our job a lot easier."

There's plenty of praise to go around. Wilson scolded his defensemen for playing soft and uninspired through the first 10 games, letting forwards camp out in the crease untouched. Now, starting goaltender Olaf Kolzig and backup Craig Billington (who registered the shutout) are enjoying the help after being left to fend for themselves early in the season. They no longer have to dive around attempting to stop rebounds at point-blank range.

"There's no secret to why our goals-against is down the last 10 games," Kolzig said. "The guys have done a great job in front of the net. They've been clearing guys out and blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies and working hard in the corners."