In Philadelphia on Sunday night, there was almost an audible sigh of relief from the Washington Capitals’ bench when the five-minute mark of the first period came and went and the game remained scoreless.
In six of the previous 10 games, Washington surrendered a score early and then tried playing catch-up for 59 or so minutes. The Caps did not win any of those games.
As the first period wore on Sunday night the team started loosening up, slowly playing a smoother game until the third period, when it took over and earned a 1-1 tie.
“Feeling better? Yes, much better,” said coach Ron Wilson, acknowledging he was doing a little clock-watching early in the game and noticed the five-minute mark pass. “We weren’t down. You don’t have that ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling here we go again. No matter what we do, how we prepare, we’re down 1-0 on the first scoring chance, and that didn’t happen. That was a real positive.”
It’s a start, at least, for a team that appears to be going through the same thing it did a year ago, trying to be offensive minded only to find none of the guns are loaded. The realization that the defense carried the Caps a year ago slowly is sinking in.
“As the game wore on we got over that afraid-to-lose mentality,” Wilson said yesterday. “That has kind of handcuffed us for the last couple weeks, [but] in the third period we just went for it. You’re trailing, and there’s nothing to lose and we went after them. It’s a process to get over that. It isn’t a light switch unfortunately. You can get yourself caught in a rut mentally, which we’ve been in, guys putting their energies into the wrong thing.”
Not that a tie is better than a win or scoring one goal is going to solve all the problems, but the team did come from behind to earn a point, something it had not done in Columbus or Boston or other places this season. It got a goal from Jeff Halpern off an excellent pass from Terry Yake; it killed all seven Philadelphia power plays, including a two-man, 40-second disadvantage; and it even got lucky on a couple occasions when it appeared it was waiting for something bad to happen.
“We were playing afraid-to-lose-the-game,” Wilson admitted when asked about the span of more than 21 minutes when Washington did not have a shot on goal. “We talked [between periods] about not being afraid to lose, and the way to show me you’re not afraid to lose is to start shooting the puck. A shot on goal is an attempt to score, an attempt to win the game, and we started doing that in the third period.”
“We all know what we have to do,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “We all know what made us successful last year. We’re just trying to find that one thing that connects us, and [Sunday] night, for the most part, we had it. We need that to be successful. Hopefully that was a sign of us coming together defensively, and maybe because of that we can start concentrating on being more offensive.”
Notes The Caps yesterday called up defenseman Rob Zettler from Portland, Maine, in the American Hockey League. He played in 12 NHL games last season, plus 23 with the Pirates after recovering from a concussion. What was not announced was why Zettler was brought up. The Caps have played four games with six defensemen with Ken Klee out with wrist surgery, but yesterday Sergei Gonchar briefly stepped on the ice then departed. Wilson said Gonchar was “just a little sore [but] he’ll play” tonight against Detroit at MCI Center. The Caps also put Klee on the retroactive injured reserve list, a belated move considering he had surgery Oct. 23 and hasn’t played since Oct. 19. Wilson said Klee is “not quite ready to play [but] sometime this week he should be able to because he’s progressing rapidly now.” A player can come off IR in seven days, meaning Klee was eligible to come off the second he went on the list yesterday.