- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

Ron Wilson and his Washington Capitals have been there before so the coach is not going to make any statement that can come back and haunt him down the road. But the similarities between last year's Caps and this season's are becoming more and more apparent.

And if you're a Caps fan, that's good news because last year, after a dreadful start, Washington was the best team in the NHL during the second half of the season and was in the fight for the Eastern Conference's top seed up to the last day of the campaign.

"I like the position we put ourselves in right now and the style we're playing because we've been consistent for 10 or 12 games," Wilson said yesterday before the team left for New York and tonight's game against the Rangers.

The Caps are a game below .500 with 25 points; as recently as Nov. 9 the club was five games under with an embarrassing 11 points, ranked 28th in the 30-team league.

Sound familiar? The script was startling similar last season when the team scrambled around the cellar of the NHL, three or four games under .500, playing without meaning and intensity, creating fatal mistakes out of seemingly safe situations just like a month ago.

"Until we've got significant wins and put ourselves well over .500, a slump or bad luck can hit you at any time," Wilson said. "We don't have any kind of cushion to just play a few games but we seem to do really well in the mucky part of the season when other teams start to slow down … and we start to grind it out."

Wilson is not looking specifically at today or even next week, it's the long haul he is concerned about.

"[Reaching .500] was the major hurdle for us last year and it's exactly the same this year. We got to one game under then we fell back. I think we know how to go about this, maybe it takes us five or six games to go over it. I hope we can win the next three games on the road and settle into a nice rhythm for the rest of the season."

Washington swept two from Boston last weekend, two games that the club might have lost two or three weeks ago. The difference appears to be one word: patience.

"I think we were playing better a few weeks back but we weren't getting the results," said center Adam Oates. "Now the guys are coming back [on defense], they're in a little better shape, [Chris] Simon has a little more jump, Olie Kolzig is a little sharper, we're playing better as a team.

"But patience is the key and it's the toughest thing to play. In our system centers are high and it's tough not to go in, really hard because you want to help. I feel fresh, the guys down low are tired, I want to go in but you can't. It's the hardest thing in the world."

"We were impatient, especially on our back-to-back nights," said Kolzig. "We wanted to get out to a lead, we opened it up and teams took advantage of us. The other night [in Boston] … we capitalized on a few of their mistakes. We realized that to be successful on back-to-back nights, we have to be patient, wait for the other team to make a mistake."

The turnovers and odd-man rushes have been cut back, the power play has improved (although it still remains pitiful on the road), the penalty-killing has gotten better. The realization has set in that the club will not win shootouts, it has to be what it is a home for grinders and muckers who can set up the one goal the team may need to win.

"I'll tell you what the difference is," said defenseman Calle Johansson. "We're doing everything so much simpler than we did before, we're not trying to be fancy. We're thinking now, playing smart. We're taking care of our own end before we worry about the other end, just like last year."

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