The Washington Capitals will hoist a banner tonight signifying their Southeast Division championship last season a title won with a dramatic surge in the second half, when the team played what amounted do-or-die hockey starting right after Christmas.
The hope is that such night-after-night urgency won’t be needed this season but, initially at least, the deck is stacked against the team. The Caps open the season tonight with their reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Olie Kolzig, on injured reserve and their top goal-scorer, left wing Chris Simon, holding out.
The Caps will have two rookies in uniform as they host the Los Angeles Kings, center Kris Beech and defenseman Jakub Cutta, and two former Caps, defenseman Sylvain Cote and left wing Craig Berube, back in the fold.
Also in the lineup will be right wing Peter Bondra, Washington’s two-time former 50-goal scorer who has asked to be traded. The Caps say they are trying to accommodate him but will wait for a deal that makes sense to the club. Meanwhile, it expects the player to show the intensity he did when he was driving toward scoring titles, and he has said he will.
The Bondra situation and the holdouts by Simon and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, the latter of which ended Tuesday night, have created a cloud over the dressing room from the time camp opened a month ago, a cloud that has not totally dissipated. Three players who should be legitimate forces on the team were not present or on the trading block.
The questions the players were asking were real and concern parts of the foundation of the team. When if? - Bondra goes, who comes in return? How will new faces fit in if they are veterans, or will the club accept prospects? Can any replacement do better than the 21 goals the right wing scored last season?
Gonchar is traditionally a slow starter, so his presence won’t be truly missed at first, but how does a club that scores only in the mid-range make up for Simon’s 29 goals and, perhaps more important, the hulking, sulking demeanor that confronted opponents nightly?
Washington stumbled to a 2-6-2 start last season and was still four games below .500 at Christmas. It was then that the team caught fire; it lost only 10 of its last 49 games, won its division and nearly won the Eastern Conference title. It went from Dec. 21-22 to the end of March without losing back-to-back games.
“You would like to start better,” coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. “Can you overcome a bad start? Yes, and sometimes you can start too fast and fade. We want to be consistent throughout the whole year. You have got to be in a position sometime in January or February to really start pushing, and last year we were in spite of our poor start.”
Wilson questions whether the start was really all that bad, but the club didn’t reach the .500 mark for good until Jan. 16. The rocky beginning was attributed to a scheme that didn’t fit the team, so Wilson quickly reverted to the defense that brought the team to the Stanley Cup finals two seasons earlier. It saved the season.
“We’re playing a different style, so hopefully the style we have is kind of slump-proof,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you win every game, but you don’t go long stretches of giving up a lot of goals. Last year we got into that rut where we were giving up some goals, and we had to change our style in November. It took us a month to get used to it and then get up and running.”
The club starts with that style immediately this time the wings forechecking deep while the center plays high to cut down on the number of odd-man breaks. The team averaged 3.6 goals-against during its first 10 games, 2.7 during its second 10 while it was adjusting.
More adjustments may be necessary. Preseasons are billed as one continuous experiment and, if anything, what was shown was that Wilson will be required to do more tinkering. The club again allowed an average of 3.6 goals while scoring only 2.5. Special teams were even worse. The power play scored only six times in 49 chances, while the penalty killing ranked 29th out of 30 teams (14 goals allowed in 64 attempts).
Wilson is banking on some of the team’s youth stepping forward to assume spots of leadership. Richard Zednik led the club in preseason scoring (4-2-6) and is showing more patience. Jan Bulis came off his holdout with his customary zip, but the club has seen that before. Jeff Halpern, the Montgomery County, Md., native who has worked all summer seeking to avoid a sophomore slump, had three goals, second only to Zednik.
The organization has better depth at most spots, but the ideal situation is not to have to use it. The bad news is that will be dipping into that reserve on opening night.