The Washington Capitals' sprint from the bottom of the Eastern Conference has been predicated on a rededication to their defensive system. In the process, they've unearthed a potent offense. The Capitals flexed their offensive muscle again last night at MCI Center, scoring seven times in 25 minutes to pound the Tampa Bay Lightning, 8-2, setting a season high for goals before 11,994 fans.
The Capitals (21-17-8) are undefeated in eight games (7-0-1), their longest streak since 1988-89. They have lost once since Christmas (9-1-3), scoring a hefty 48 goals in 13 games and allowing just 25. They scored three or more goals for the eighth time in the last 10 games and, for the fifth time in that span, topped four goals, something they accomplished twice in their first 36 games. The last NHL team to have two double-digit goal scorers suddenly has five. Some of that damage has come against lesser opponents, but, regardless, the turnaround is impressive.
"The offense is there because we're playing solid defense," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Then the snowball starts and your confidence grows because your goaltender and defense aren't making many mistakes and you can be more creative."
Last night's explosion featured some of the usual suspects at their creative best. Center Adam Oates picked up three assists, taking over 15th place on the NHL's all-time assist list and giving him 32 points in his last 33 games. Chris Simon scored twice and is on a torrid run--11 of his 15 goals were scored in the last 16 games. He is one goal off his career high and tied with Peter Bondra for the team lead. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar notched his 11th goal and 23rd point in his last 21 games; he had no goals and five assists in his first 20 games. Only three defensemen in the NHL have more goals.
"It seemed like everything we touched around the net was going in," Simon said. "We believe with the system that we're playing that if we stick to it through the whole game we're going to get the opportunity to score."
That Capitals sniper Peter Bondra needed but a few shifts to snap his two-month scoring slump came as no surprise. After all, he was facing a team he has feasted on, with 32 goals in 31 games. Goalie Dan Cloutier played the puck up ice and right to Capitals defenseman Ken Klee. Cloutier scrambled back to stop Klee's shot, but Bondra popped in the rebound for his first goal since Nov. 27 (nine games); he has missed more than a month because of knee injuries. Bondra scored again late in the game, his 15th goal. "The first goal was real lucky, the puck somehow found me," Bondra said. "Maybe it's Tampa, maybe if it was someone else, it wouldn't go in."
But as a whole, the Capitals were lagging. Tampa (one win in 18 games) kept goalie Olaf Kolzig on the move and Darcy Tucker tied the score on a deflection 67 seconds into the second period. Signs of improvement came on the penalty kill, and a few minutes later, the Capitals were crushing another foe at home. At MCI Center, they are undefeated in seven games, have earned points in 17 of their last 18 games (11-2-5) and have 31 points, compared with 34 all of last season. Washington has yielded 47 goals at home, fewest in the NHL.
"I think the boys are really starting to get a grasp of the system," Kolzig said. "We're creating a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone, and we go down and end up putting the puck in the net."
The goals are coming in bunches. Brendan Witt, who earned his first point in 29 games, fired from the left side and Steve Konowalchuk went hard to the net, smacking in the rebound about 12 minutes into the second period, making it 2-1. About three minutes later, Joe Reekie slid the puck to Oates and he dished it to Simon on his right. Simon put his deadly wrist shot just where he likes it, barely under the crossbar to make it 3-1. "The way [Simon] plays is unbelievable," Bondra said. "If he plays like that, definitely he's going to have 30 goals, at least."
Twenty-seven seconds after that, Oates fed Simon in the crease; he was denied but the rebound sat a few feet from the net. Gonchar poked it home. MCI Center was alive, and the Lightning were punch-drunk. Joe Sacco, Simon, Bondra and rookie Jeff Halpern scored in the third period to cap another blowout for the suddenly dominant Capitals.