The Washington Capitals have used a total of nine defensemen in 14 games, playing a combined 85 men in 854 minutes of hockey. They have fired 95 total shots on goal, and not one of them has scored. Not on the power play. Not while short-handed. Not even into an empty net.
Scoring balance has been a problem for the Capitals all season. The forwards are hardly absolved of blame -- key players such as Dainius Zubrus and Andreas Salomonsson are still looking for their first goals of the season -- but the defensive slump has been surprising. Defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, Ken Klee and Jean-Francois Fortin all have offensive abilities, and all remain in pursuit of a single goal.
"It's pretty bad," said Johansson, who was excused from yesterday's practice to get a rest but is set to play against Philadelphia tonight. "We haven't scored a lot of goals overall, but we obviously have to chip in and we haven't done it. What can I say? I don't have any excuses for it. It's nothing I'm proud of. We should be scoring more goals as a defensive corps."
Ottawa is the only other team in the league without a goal from a defenseman, but the Senators have played just 10 games. Most teams have at least three defensemen with goals, and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom has produced seven. Gonchar is the top scoring NHL defenseman since the start of the 1998-99 season (85 goals) and scored a career-high 26 goals last season. He leads the defense with nine assists, but Klee (three) and Johansson (three) are the only other defensemen to register a point thus far. Gonchar has failed to strike the net in 14 games this season, sending several shots off the post.
"We've had so many chances," Gonchar said. "Calle is joining in the rush and I'm trying to do the same thing. I've hit so many posts. I could have five goals already, but I just miss by a couple of inches each time. I think it's going to be a goal, but for some reason it's not going in. One day things are going to turn around."
Coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff met with Gonchar before the season, asking the offense-minded player to focus more on his own zone and become more of a presence around his crease. That message extended to the entire defense as well, as the Capitals (7-6-1) tried to improve upon last season, when they had the sixth-worst goals against average in the NHL.
But now the offense clearly needs a boost from the defense. Washington has been held to two goals or fewer in 11 of 14 games, and on most nights 10 of the 18 skaters on the ice are without a goal. Only five forwards have scored three goals or more, and key forwards such as Zubrus, Mike Grier, Michael Nylander, Kip Miller and Salomonsson have netted two goals or fewer. The team has produced few ugly goals around the net, in part because the defensemen have struggled to get pucks to that all-important area of the ice.
"I would just like to see [the defensemen] give themselves a chance to score by getting the puck on the net on a regular basis and getting second chances," Cassidy said. "If you're asking your forwards to go to the net and go in those high traffic areas where they've got to pay the price, and the guy at the point is shooting the puck three feet high or wide, it defeats the purpose."
Gonchar has taken 46 shots, third on the team and tied for second among NHL defensemen, but the shot totals for Washington's defensemen trail off significantly after that. Rick Berry is the only other defenseman averaging at least one shot per game (14 shots in 11 games), and three of the six regular defensemen have yet to crack double digits. Johansson, whose 110 goals are third most among defensemen in Capitals' history, has just eight shots on goal this season.
"We're not shooting enough," Johansson said. "That's the whole idea. There are not too many pretty goals scored anymore, it's a lot of rebound goals where the goalie is screened. So for you to score in this league now you have to shoot the puck a lot and we haven't done that. I just look at myself. I have very few shots, and that's not good enough."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brendan Witt missed yesterday's practice with a sprained shoulder suffered early in Thursday's game. The injury is not believed to be serious and he is listed as day-to-day, although he is doubtful for tonight's game. . . . Center Robert Lang missed yesterday's practice with the flu but is expected to play tonight. . . . The Capitals have finalized their buyout agreement with defenseman Sylvain Cote, a 19-year NHL veteran who was demoted to the minors last week and was in the last year of his contract. . . . The Capitals have been pummeled by the Flyers in two meetings in Philadelphia this season. "We ended up standing around a lot in those two games," Cassidy said. "I'd like to see if we have some jump [tonight] and play a smarter game against them."