- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

The Washington Capitals went through February on cruise control, posting a 9-1-1 record for the best month in team history. But after further review, it may also have been the team's undoing.

The Caps are in trouble. They have lost four in a row, their longest drought in two seasons. Their penalty killers have stopped doing their jobs. The team has been outscored 14-5 in its last four games. Three weeks ago they were three points out of first place in the Eastern Conference; they are now nine points back and fighting to hold their ground.

Washington, a few weeks back, had the league's best record since the end of November and had been on a 15-1-2-1 run. That record is now 15-5-2-1 not nearly as impressive.

What happened, and when did it occur? The turning point appears to have been Feb. 24, a highly emotional 2-1 victory over Carolina in Raleigh that put the Hurricanes far enough behind the Caps to make the fight for the Southeast Division title a moot point.

Washington lost the next game to Chicago 3-2, and the slide started. It became evident in that game that other coaches were studying coach Ron Wilson's tactics closely to see what they could adopt or what they could do to slow the Caps down.

What the Blackhawks did was dump the puck out of their zone as quickly as possible, even if it meant icing it. That negated one of the Caps' primary weapons, the forecheck, meaning the Caps lost the ability to cause turnovers deep in the opponents' zone to set up scoring chances.

In this day of scouting via satellite TV, Chicago's strategy soon became general knowledge. But neutralizing the forecheck was not the only tactic being used to stop the Caps. Other changes that have slowed the team's charge to the playoffs include:

• Peter Bondra has 43 goals, and Adam Oates has 64 assists. Both figures are twice the number of anybody else on the team. It doesn't take a genius to figure that if those two are shut down, or even restricted, the Caps' scoring will decline. That has happened.

• The power play is second in the league overall and rated No. 1 at home. It is directed by Oates, who runs it from the half boards with the efficiency of Gen. George Patton. Opponents started harassing Oates and blocking his passing lanes, and now the unit has trouble gaining the zone and setting up.

• After the Carolina game, the penalty-killers were rated No. 6 in the league at 86.3 percent and improving. Since then the unit has killed just 74 percent of opponent chances, dropping it to 15th. If that performance continues in the playoffs, it will be another short run.

• Even before the March 13 trading deadline, the top two forward lines were defended vigorously by opponents, while the other two were provided token resistance. The result has been a less cohesive effort by the top two units. Meanwhile, Wilson continues to try every conceivable combination to get something working.

• Goalie Olie Kolzig has not been as sharp in the last three weeks as he was earlier. It is tough to be sharp when defenders forwards and defensemen bail out on a regular basis. New York's four first-period goals Monday night were a team disgrace, not a goaltending disgrace. Too often defenseman stand around watching opposing forwards use Kolzig for target practice from close range and do little or nothing to protect their goal.

• The Caps regressed and again are taking dumb penalties at the most inopportune times. Avoidable infractions by Brendan Witt and Joe Reekie resulted in Rangers goals Monday.

The Caps have nine games left to right their ship, starting with Florida and Tampa Bay this weekend. Easy targets? That was the assumption heading into Madison Square Garden on Monday night, and Washington was embarrassed.

The unfortunate part is that unless there is a concerted effort by all 20 players, there probably will be more embarrassments down the road.

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