It may be a new era with the Capitals in that they have hired a new coach, but their story is a familiar one. As their NHL season reached its first plateau of 20 games last night at MCI Center, the Caps continued to look for scoring and continued to not find enough of it. They have been looking for goal-scoring almost as long as Moses was in the desert.
Bruce Cassidy, the 37-year-old newcomer coach, is the latest to discover this. Even in the best of times over the years, the Capitals rarely have scored enough to give themselves a comfort level for any stretch of games; they've almost always done it with defense.
Lately, they simply have been trying to get on the scoreboard and this comes as something of a surprise given the fair amount of offensive talent they have. The Capitals scored only five goals in their four games going into last night's game, and the problem in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota, a second loss to that third-year franchise within a week, was that they played the game from behind, something they have done much too often this season.
Not even Jaromir Jagr, who won five NHL scoring titles with Pittsburgh, has been able to transform this historically defense-oriented team, not yet anyway in a season and a quarter. Alarmingly, the Capitals have managed to score more than two goals in only five of their games this season, and their winless stretch now has reached five.
One game recently, the Caps managed 17 shots on goal. Another game, 16. Yet even the hockey cliche, when you shoot, good things happen, doesn't apply. They shot 48 times the other night -- rare for any team -- and still lost, 3-2, to San Jose. Great San Jose goaltending. Bad luck for the Capitals. Call it what you will. But San Jose is not Detroit.
Nor is this team that the Caps have lost to twice in six days; no, this is a team called the Wild. Last night, it took the Capitals almost half the first period to put more than one shot on goal.
That's the most alarming thing about the Capitals, who have reached 20 games two under .500, just a single game better than they were at this time last season under Ron Wilson. The Caps still don't seem to be playing with much urgency. This is especially true at the start of games, when more often than not they have looked listless, making leisurely passes and giving an impression that their defense and offense are disconnected.
"A lot of what we talked about didn't happen, and it's frustrating," Cassidy said after the latest loss. "Obviously we've got to find a way to get our point across better as a coaching staff because right now they're not buying what we're selling in terms of preparation."
After the game, Cassidy had a closed-door meeting with the players that went on for several minutes. Then, the players had their own meeting. And while they were meeting, the coaching staff met. Only last Saturday after the first Minnesota loss, there also was a meeting -- although not as long as last night's.
After the MCI basement doors opened, no one could be found who disagreed on what the Capitals should be doing. Simply put, they need to play the game as if they mean it from the outset. They need to get ahead. When you're not desperate to score, scoring tends to come more easily.
"We've got to find a way to play with the lead or come out hard and give ourselves an opportunity," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said.
"The games are flying by and we're nowhere near where we want to be," said Steve Konowalchuk, the captain.
Last night, back spasms forced Peter Bondra out of the game after one period, leaving Jagr as the only consistent goal scorer. Bondra's absence made even clearer the Capitals' need of late: scoring contributions from the supporting cast.
The cast includes Dainius Zubrus, no goals in 18 games; recent acquisition Michael Nylander, one goal, and the whole defensive crew, which had been limited to one goal before Sergei Gonchar and Ken Klee scored last night. Mike Grier added his third goal, his second in two games, which represents an awakening.
More Capitals need to wake up. The young coach is searching for the alarm button, but so far hasn't found it.
"Just getting used to what buttons to push for players at this level is a lot different than the minor leagues," he said before last night's game. "Young guys in the minor leagues haven't been there, so you can do what you want. At this level, you've got guys who have been in the league 10 years and I'm trying maybe to change the way they play a little bit, develop better habits or [have them] buy into something they're not used to buying into. And that's a tougher sell."
Cassidy is a work in progress as an NHL head coach. His two assistants, Randy Carlyle and Glen Hanlon, also bring their coaching experience from the minor leagues. So the staff itself is searching for the way. In addition, the team has new faces, including several new forwards. But the players, the most veteran among them, need to help shape the team into the winner it ought to be.
"We've juggled lines from day one," Cassidy said. "We've tried to get our defensemen to concentrate on getting pucks through to the net for second chances, because we're not scoring a lot on our first shots. Like the other night, Grier got one on the rebound. If we start to get some second-chance goals, develop that mind-set that we're going to the net . . .
"If you look at our schedule, most of our games have been against teams above .500. We have not had an easy schedule. Our starting goalie was out for a week. We had an eight-game road trip. Now we have a stretch of 20 games after this where we're playing some teams under .500, teams struggling a little bit.
"We've got a chance in the next two weeks at home here to make a little hay."
But to do that, the Capitals will have to change their ways. Making hay means getting to work early, and not letting up.