- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Washington Capitals skated Saturday night with the intensity of players trailing by one goal late in Game 7 of a playoff series. That they trailed the New York Islanders by two or three didn’t seem to matter.

“We were on that fine line, between winning and losing, and we knew it was very close,” center Dainius Zubrus said yesterday. “The team was playing well — we knew that.”

Such effort is necessary when trying to stop a winless streak.

The Caps are going through a stretch that affects most sports teams during a long season, a point where offense — or defense, for that matter — simply disappears. The club averaged 3.2 goals through the first 17 games of the season. During the last six, all without a win, the average has dropped to 1.5.

There are no explanations; no magic pills to cure whatever the ailment is. The team wasn’t playing any differently at the start of this six-game winless streak than it had been for the previous six, but play has deteriorated lately while individuals try to do too much to stop the streak.

Special teams are off the respectable pace on which they had been, key reasons the team is not winning. The power play has scored once in each of the last six games while the penalty-killers have allowed nine goals.

Washington has been outscored 25-9 with four players — Jakub Klepis, Alex Ovechkin, Matt Pettinger (two each) and Zubrus — providing all the offense. Since the middle of the second period against Atlanta on Wednesday, the team has been outscored 15-2.

“The last game I had a few very, very good chances to score, I had seven shots and two that went wide,” Zubrus said, shaking his head. “They haven’t gone in, but I’m sure they will. It would be another story if I went five games in a row with only one or two shots, but right now the chances are there, it’s just a matter of finishing them off.”

The Caps had a season-high eight-game winless streak last March when the team lost five in regulation and three others in overtime or via shootout. But even during that span, the team averaged nearly 3.0 goals.

“This stretch is keeping me up more at night than [the one last season] because there’s more emphasis on winning,” coach Glen Hanlon said. “We’re trying to win any way we can, whether it’s [the goalies] making 40 saves every night or our specialty teams scoring a couple goals for us. We’re working for wins, and that’s what’s made it more difficult.”

Making the playoffs was never a serious consideration last season, the first in the organization’s massive rebuilding program. That is not the case this season. Washington felt enough improvement had been made, with some good free agents added and sniper Alexander Semin back on the team. But after a torrid start, no one counted on Semin going 12 games without a goal.

The team had been ahead of last season’s results after the first quarter of the season, but the recent slump has dragged some of those statistics down. Even if the Caps win tonight at Tampa Bay, it will take time to regain lost positioning.

“We haven’t scored an even-strength goal in three games,” Hanlon lamented yesterday, a statement that was off by only a few minutes. Ovechkin has been the only Caps player to score in the last two games, and then only once a game.

“When you’re on a winning streak you normally win a couple [games] at the end you don’t deserve just from momentum and confidence, while if you’re on a losing streak you normally don’t win that first one back,” he said. “I felt we played a very strong game against the Islanders. We had ample opportunities to score and put that game away. We out-chanced them. The big thing was they had a power play goal, and we had chances with that extended 5-on-3 [but did not score]. I felt that was the difference.”