A year ago today the Washington Capitals started their unparalleled march from oblivion to home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, losing only one of their first 16 games during a stretch that saw them go from four games under .500 to finish 18 games above it.
It is interesting to note that the 2000-2001 Caps are five points ahead of last year’s pace after the same number of games, meaning they are three games above breakeven instead of three games below, which they were after 35 games a year ago.
What has been the difference? After the near disaster that was the first half last season, team members probably awoke sooner this year. Failure sometimes lends to longer-lasting memories than success.
“It’s critical that we don’t lose our identity as a team, that we understand what we are,” coach Ron Wilson said yesterday after the team got back on the ice after a two-day holiday break. “If we focus and get the job done defensively, we’ll put ourselves in a position to win a lot of games. That’s how we are going to proceed in the second half.”
The second half doesn’t officially start until Jan. 6 in Toronto. That game, the 42nd of the season, will be the Caps’ seventh game in 11 days. Not only are they playing a lot of games in just a few days, the caliber of competition is high: Ottawa (tonight), New Jersey, Philadelphia, suddenly frisky Atlanta, Pittsburgh with the returned Mario Lemieux, Boston and the Maple Leafs.
“You have to hope you stay healthy,” Wilson said. “That’s a very important part of this. We’re sort of in a nice little rhythm right now, but we’ve got to maintain it. There’s no doubt that we’re going to hit a slump at some point, so we want to make sure that our system is strong enough to prevent any long-term droughts.”
The Caps have broken the medical chains that harnessed them for so long; they have lost 46 man-games to injury this season, but only a few years ago that was a fairly easy month for this team.
Slumps are something else. The Caps stumbled home 5-4-1 in their last 10 last season, a slump that ran to 9-13-7-2 if the first 20 games of this season are included. In total, Washington gained just 27 of a possible 62 points.
“I’m just looking for consistency,” Wilson said. “I don’t expect to go 11-3 every month for the rest of the way. I know there’s going to be some hard times. There’s some tough scheduling, especially right after the All-Star break. After that we’ve got a long, long road trip [six games in 13 days] that could knock you off your track if you’re not careful.”
Notes Peter Bondra, Steve Konowalchuk and Jan Bulis spent a portion of Christmas Day with ailing children at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., making sure one and all received paraphernalia of one sort or another from the team… .
Chris Simon was excused from practice yesterday but was scheduled to rejoin the team last night in Ottawa… . Sergei Gonchar, out with a sore neck, looked fine yesterday and is scheduled to be in the lineup tonight… . Bulis (broken right thumb) is at least another week away, according to Wilson, and will remain behind to work out with conditioning coach Frank Costello.