- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

If you are a Washington sports fan suffering from Redskins disease, I know where the cure is on the ice at MCI Center, where the very antithesis of the Redskins has been playing some of the best hockey in the National Hockey League.

Pay attention. The Washington Capitals are 10-3-2 in their last 15 games, including a seven-game home winning streak. They are in first place in the Southeast Division with a 13-11-6-1 record, and played their best hockey of the season Saturday night, shutting out Edmonton 4-0. Granted, the Oilers had traveled cross country, played three games in four nights and their starting goalie, Tommy Salo, wasn't in the net.

But Edmonton is a quick-skating, strong offensive team and it was never even in the game. "That's the best we probably skated all season, if you ask me," Caps coach Ron Wilson said.

The Caps are doing it without any high-priced free agents or imported big-name stars. No one feared losing his job when the Caps got off to a slow start, going 3-8-4, and no one breaks into a cold sweat when owners Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky show up in the locker room after the game.

There is a plan for success for the Capitals franchise. It is one dictated by discipline and patience. The discipline pays off in the intense, defensive style of opportunistic hockey that Wilson has made the Capitals trademark. The patience of general manager George McPhee and the Capitals ownership was on display on the ice Saturday night when Matt Herr, recalled from Portland, Maine, Friday, scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the first period.

Herr, who was Portland's leading scorer this season, with 16 goals and 9 assists, symbolizes the future of the Caps not in the glitz of aging free agents, but in the speed and strength of the youngsters coming up in the Caps system. "We have a group of young kids down there who will be coming up who are big and fast," Leonsis said.

That is the future of the Caps. It doesn't necessarily mean that success is down the road. It may be right here, right now, with perhaps a different twist than what we've seen in the past few years.

Under Wilson's system, defense wins games. The offense, while opportunistic, has had very little cushion for winning, very little room for error.

It is the personality of the team, convinced that the only way it will win is 2-1 or 3-2 at best. "We know we are a one-goal win hockey team," goalie Olie Kolzig said.

Perhaps Wilson has had to drill it into their heads that this is the way it will have to be in order to get them to play the defensive style that dictates discipline. "We don't have many guys here who have great numbers in their career," Wilson said. "Realistically we have to play hard defense, and the goals will be there."

But why not both? Why not great defense and even more opportunistic scoring? The talk about the Caps since their Stanley Cup finals run in 1998 says that if they get any kind of scoring, they would be pretty tough to beat.

Well, this is the year they could get that kind of scoring. Chris Simon, who emerged last year as an offensive force with a career-high 29 goals, is coming on after playing himself back into shape following his holdout. He has three goals in his last eight games. In a testament to the management style of the Capitals, Peter Bondra an unhappy player who desperately wanted to be traded during the offseason was not dealt away in desperation. He now leads the team with 12 goals and 28 points in 31 games. In 62 games last year, Bondra scored just 38 points. A productive Bondra would significantly improve the offensive output of last year.

The rub lies in players like Richard Zednik. If he steps up to realize his potential this year, that could make this Caps team the most formidable offensive unit since Wilson and McPhee arrived three years ago. Zednik had scored just one goal in his last 18 games before getting one Saturday night his sixth of the season. With his talent, he should be scoring at least 25 goals a season.

The Caps have done pretty well living on the edge. They do it better than any team in the league. "We're not as skilled as a lot of teams in the league, but if we play like a team, we're probably one of the best teams in the league," Kolzig said.

This year nearly has been a mirror image of last season, when the Caps got off to a poor start 13-16-6 mark before January. After that, they put together a remarkable run of 31-10-6. This year, they didn't take quite as long to get untracked, but no one seems to be expecting the same winning pace that was produced during those final 47 games last year. "It's been like last season, when we started out slow," Kolzig said. "But it's good that we responded a little sooner than we did last season. I think everybody to a man realizes what we did the second half of the season last year was something special and might not ever be repeated again."

Why not? What if the Caps, with their strong defense and one of the best goaltenders in the league, suddenly find themselves to be an offensive force as well?

Wilson might not know what to do with a team that can actually score more than three goals a game. The idea seems to offend him. "Everybody always worries about our offense, but all I worry about is winning games," he said. "We're a couple of games over .500 and heading in the right direction. We're probably going to average three goals a game the rest of the way, and that should win a lot of games for us. That's all we're looking for, not going out there and trading chances with teams."

He's right. Three goals a game should win a lot of games for the Caps. Four would win more.

"Believe me, I wouldn't be against getting a three or four goal cushion every game," Kolzig said.

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