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Caps searching for late-game fix

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First it was letting up because of a five-goal lead. Then it was a parade to the penalty box. Next up was a lapse in effort, Then back to the penalty trouble. And finally it was missed power-play opportunities combined with one bad defensive shift.

For five straight games, the Washington Capitals have had issues in the third period. The first one, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, didn't seem to matter at the time because the Caps were coasting to a victory.

But the team hasn't won since despite either being ahead or tied in the final 20 minutes in all four contests.

"I think it's been different each game, but now that it has happened a few times I think guys are thinking about it too much and maybe putting a lot of pressure on themselves instead of just playing the way we do the first couple periods," captain Chris Clark said. "Right now, it is something that might be a little mental, and we have to get over it because we are professionals."

Added Brooks Laich: "I think mental mistakes are all [that is wrong] and that encompasses everything. That's taking ill-timed penalties and turnovers, and we're a better hockey team than what we've shown. We just have to make sure the focus is better. We've talked about it, and we care about results around here - not intentions."

The Caps have been outscored 8-4 in the third period of those games. Contrast this with how well the team has played in the first 40 - and especially the first 20 - minutes, and there is a disconnect between how they are starting and how they are finishing contests.

Instead of continuing to pursue the puck and maintain some level of coach Bruce Boudreau's aggressive philosophy, the Caps have been caught dialing it back too much once they have the lead. There is a balance to be struck, and the Caps are still searching for it.

"You don't want to play as aggressive as you did in the first couple periods when you have the lead in the third, but you still don't want to be clearly defensive and trying to keep chipping the puck out," Clark said. "Playing it too safe can get into your mind too much."

Still, Boudreau and his charges have found reason for optimism. The quantity of mistakes, either from mental error or lack of effort, has been much lower in the losses to the Red Wings and Devils than defeats against the Flyers and Rangers.

Save for the desire issues against the Rangers, special teams can be targeted as a problem in each game: too many penalties taken against the Flyers, too many power-play goals allowed against the Red Wings and a short-circuited performance on the power play against the Devils.

When the Caps aren't taking penalties at even strength, they have consistently looked like the team all of the preseason prognosticators expected them to be.

"We work hard and do the things we need to at five-on-five," David Steckel said. "It is when we take a stupid penalty - we take the momentum away from ourselves. Then you get out of rhythm and stop rolling four lines. I just don't think other than the first game we have played a consistent, 60-minute hockey game yet."

Added Boudreau: "The graph is going up. It is not going down."

To show how much expectations can affect the perception, just take a peek at Washington's early-season performance from a season ago. The Caps were 3-3-1 after seven games with losses to lowly Atlanta and Phoenix.

The 2008-09 Caps were on their way to dealing with the fanfare and expectations bestowed upon the league's top clubs. This season's edition is finding out what that is all about.

"We still believe we're a very good hockey team," Laich said. "There is no sense and no reason to panic. I'm sure things haven't gone the way we wanted the last four games, and if you panic you only make life worse for yourself."

Note - Defensemen Tom Poti and John Erskine and forward Boyd Gordon missed practice Tuesday. Erskine (upper body) skated on his own before the team session. Boudreau said Poti (nearly 30 minutes played Monday) and Gordon (back) were given the day off. Poti is also dealing with an illness.

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