Wild 1, Capitals 0

Rookie Coach Bruce Cassidy spoke often this preseason about getting the Washington Capitals to play more creative, free-flowing hockey based on puck possession and an aggressive forecheck. Given the abundance of offensive stars on the roster, he wanted to establish a more attractive style for a franchise known for blue-collar forwards and a tough defense.

Yet through 18 games the Capitals (8-8-2) have no discernible style of play, winning and losing in various ways but almost always lacking for goals.

Tonight's 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center was the team's first shutout loss, but it was typical of the season, with Washington outshot (31-17) and unable to sustain a forecheck or consistent pressure.

"We're not a good progression team," Cassidy said. "You can't forecheck the puck if you don't have a good [puck] dump. You can't dump the puck if you don't have a good neutral zone. I don't know if we're not good enough or we don't want to do what it takes some nights."

Only two teams in the NHL -- lowly Buffalo and Nashville -- were averaging fewer goals per game than the Capitals entering play tonight, this despite the presence of Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander in the Caps' lineup. Those players are carrying the offensive load, but no one is helping; nine of the 18 skaters in uniform tonight are still searching for their first goal this season.

The import of a few additional goals cannot be overstated. Thirteen of Washington's first 18 games have been settled by a goal or less. The Capitals have scored two goals or fewer in 14 of those games; they are 4-0 when scoring at least three goals and 4-8-2 when they do not crack the modest three-goal plateau.

"When we play defense we have two guys working and everybody else is watching," Jagr said. "When we play offense, only three guys work and the other two are watching. We don't help each other. We don't play together. . . . It doesn't matter how much talent on offense you've got if you play three-against-five."

The Capitals looked like a team in the first period tonight, then faded and separated. Scoring chances were scant, and by the midpoint the Wild was all over Washington, squeezing the life out of its attack. Minnesota's territorial advantage was sure to produce a goal, and it came less than seven minutes into the second period.

Olaf Kolzig's timing and flexibility were tested throughout, and he met every challenge but one. Pascal Dupuis handcuffed Kolzig with a rising shot to his glove side for his sixth goal this season. But Kolzig was the singular force keeping the Capitals in the game -- a constant this season.

Minnesota goalie Dwayne Roloson stopped Bondra and Steve Konowalchuk from close range on a power play late in the second period (the power play rut is 7 for 61, shocking considering Washington's talent), and that was it for the Capitals' offense. There were no penetrating rushes to the crease, no waves of shots, nothing.

"We don't have the guys who want to pay the price and get it deep and create the turnovers on the forecheck," Cassidy said. "And as a result we get 17 shots one night, 15 the next. Until we make a decision to do that, we're going to have to hope our power play capitalizes, and right now that's not happening."

As bad as Washington's scoring woes have been, the situation is even bleaker on the road. The Capitals have scored 21 goals in 12 away games and were held to two goals or less in 11 of those contests. Four players have accounted for 17 of the 21 goals -- Jagr (seven), Bondra (four), Lang (three) and Jeff Halpern (three) -- leaving most of the roster blanked.

Minnesota (11-5-3), a team on an unexpected ascent, coolly protected the one-goal lead with its trapping defense. The third-year franchise is atop the Western Conference and among NHL leaders in goals scored and goals against average. The Capitals can only hope to strike such a potent balance at some point this season.

"We don't have an identity yet," Kolzig said. "In years past we created a lot of offense because we took care of our own end, but we're not doing that. We've got to find a way to support each other more. That takes commitment by all of the guys. Hopefully, we can figure it out."

Notes: Forward Dainius Zubrus returned to the fourth line after being scratched for one game for ineffective play. . . . Forward-defenseman Alex Henry was a healthy scratch. . . . Defenseman Brendan Witt missed his fourth straight game with a sprained shoulder but could return Tuesday.

Caps goalie OIaf Kolzig and defenseman Calle Johansson track Wild's Jason Marshall and puck during first period.