After 25 mostly dissimilar hockey games this season, the Washington Capitals have yet to distinguish themselves in any particular discipline. They have not been potent scorers, do not play stingy defense, do not excel on special teams, do not begin games well, do not regularly outwork their opponent and do not adhere to a stringent system.
The Capitals (10-13-2, including 2-7-1 in their last 10 games) almost lack any notable characteristics and have floundered through much of Bruce Cassidy's first NHL coaching tenure. He has had to implore the club often to increase its work ethic. The team routinely goes weeks between consecutive victories. It is bad on the road (4-8-2) and has suffered some ugly defeats at home (6-2, 6-1 and 7-2). If not for the mostly stellar play of goaltender Olaf Kolzig, the Capitals' record surely would be even worse.
Cassidy concedes his team is searching for an identity, and attributes the wildly oscillating play for the team's underachieving ways.
"That's why we're 10-13-2, we don't know what we are," Cassidy said. "We're trying to get back to being a better team away from the puck [defensively]."
Cassidy, at 37 the second-youngest coach in the NHL, began the season convinced he could let his talent-laden squad play a creative, aggressive style. He wanted to unshackle them from former coach Ron Wilson's defensive-minded system and allow players such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra and Michael Nylander to freelance.
But slowly that philosophy has changed as the Capitals have gone through long spells of offensive ineptitude (nine straight games scoring two goals or fewer at one point) and porous defensive play (the Capitals have allowed 28 goals in their past seven games). The power play began the season on a tear, then stalled for weeks. The penalty killing is ranked in the bottom five of the NHL.
A 6-2 loss to Ottawa on Friday night persuaded Cassidy to play a trapping defensive system Sunday in Atlanta. Although the team allowed five goals in a loss, he was pleased with the overall play, just not some individual decisions. Cassidy might have them follow the formula on a regular basis to fix their many woes and overcome the lack of familiarity between the players and coaches.
"At this point we should know what we want to do, and we've got to do that really quickly and stay consistent," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "I don't care what kind of team you are, you've got to have a hard-working identity. The best teams work their butts off with the puck and without the puck."
Washington is 7-13-2 since opening the season 3-0 and already trails three teams in the Southeast Division, including perennial doormats Tampa Bay and Florida. Last season an awful start led to the team missing the playoffs despite a $56 million payroll.
The Capitals remain among the top 10 in the NHL in payroll -- around $48 million -- and expectations are high for a return to the playoffs, at the very least. After 25 games, that is far from a given.
"You look at other teams, and you know exactly how they play and what they do," center Jeff Halpern said. "And I'd have to say we're still searching a bit for that. There are certain times when things click and we just have to figure out a way to find what's best for our team, work on it and, more importantly, believe in it. We all have to believe that we can turn this thing around."
Capitals Notes: Forward Dainius Zubrus, who re-injured his sore right hand during Sunday's game in Atlanta, practiced yesterday and will get his hand re-evaluated by a specialist today in Washington. His right hand was hurt late last season, and he missed two games last week with the same injury before being forced out of Sunday's game in the first period. The team should know more about his status today. "I don't think we'll see him for at least a week," General Manager George McPhee said. . . . Defensemen Jean-Francois Fortin and Ken Klee missed yesterday's practice with flu, and the team recalled defenseman Jason Doig from the minors for tonight's game at Pittsburgh; the Capitals are 2-12-1 there over the last eight seasons.