Despite a lifeless start, uncharacteristically sagging special teams and a slump by their highest-paid players, the Washington Capitals have reached the season's midpoint in first place in the Southeast Division.
With a recent surge in which they earned at least one point in each of their last 10 games, the Capitals (18-16-5-2) have climbed out of the Eastern Conference cellar and corrected their defensive problems, although some linger. The offense -- power play included -- is not nearly as potent as it should be, with Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra producing far less than expected.
Naturally, the team's recent streak leaves coaches, players and management hoping for more.
"We can't be disappointed with earning points in 10 consecutive games, but we still think we can be better," General Manager George McPhee said. "And the way you get better is to have the players play better. That's the easiest way to do things -- concentrate on them and get them playing as well as they can play.
"And as always, if there's a way to upgrade the team [via trade] we'll consider doing it. But the most important thing is to get your guys playing well and to back them up."
In late November, McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis vowed to make major changes if the team did not drastically improve its work ethic and record. And on Dec. 1, first-year coach Bruce Cassidy implemented a simplified defensive system and settled on consistent lines and defensive pairings, further sparking the club's turnaround. Washington had been conceding three goals per game over the first two months, but has allowed only 21 goals in the last 11 games, with goaltender Olaf Kolzig continuing his superb play.
"We're a lot better in our own zone now," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "And I think it's just from working on it in practice and realizing we've got to get the job done in our own end and the offense will take care of itself. Guys are starting to take pride in our defense."
It has been the defense-minded checking line -- Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier -- leading Washington's offense and not its most talented players, however. Jagr, the NHL's highest-paid player at $11 million a season, is not among the top 25 scorers in the league, is not averaging a point per game, is not leading the team in scoring, does not have a multiple-goal game all season and has just seven points in his last 13 contests.
Bondra, who missed the last three games with the flu, is far off the goal-scoring pace that made him the franchise leader in that category, with only seven goals over 20 games since Nov. 7. Lang, who signed the richest free agent contract in franchise history this summer (five years, $25 million), has produced only three points in the last 14 games, getting shut out completely in 11 of those games.
Those three players figure prominently on the power play, and their troubles are directly connected to Washington's ineffectiveness on the man advantage.
"I think [their slumps] come down to what we're doing on the power play," McPhee said. "And if we get more point shots, then the power play is going to be better, and those players are going to get more points, it's that simple. We've been hanging on to the puck too much on the wall, and not getting it to the guys on the point.
"We've got two of the best shooters in the league in Bondra and [Sergei] Gonchar and they demonstrated in the last three years that we can have one of the best power plays in the league if we let these guys bomb the puck from there, and we haven't been doing it enough."
The Capitals ran that power play with Adam Oates, who set up Gonchar and Bondra with cross-ice passes and found them on back door cuts to the net. With Oates traded in March, the power play now runs through Jagr, whose instinct is to cling to the puck longer, try to draw people to him and then make a pretty play.
That strategy has not worked -- the power play is 23rd in the NHL -- and coaches have stressed the importance of puck movement and finding the point men for shots that lead to rebounds and scoring chances.
The Capitals have been held to two goals or less in four of the last five games, and a big night from one of their stars or one more power-play goal would have prevented some blown leads and increased the point total. Still, the club is far beyond the directionless play of October and November and is in the heart of the playoff race.
"We're playing a lot better now," Cassidy said. "Obviously, if you get points in 10 straight games you're doing something right. And it's not exactly our goaltender winning us game after game after game.
"Certainly, Olie's done his job and kept us in games when we've needed him to, but I think it's a whole team effort. We're getting scoring from a lot of different guys and our special teams are starting to come around. There seems to be a different reason every night why we're getting points, and that's what you need."