- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2001

It's as much a tradition as turkey, cranberry sauce and going to grandma's house to feast. If it's Thanksgiving, it must be time for the official start of the Washington Capitals' season.

For the last two years the Caps have, as usual, started poorly and, as usual, finished strongly. Last year the Caps had only six wins by Thanksgiving, but had the best second-half record in the league and won their division. And in 1999-00 the team had just two wins in October, but posted the best record in the league from Thanksgiving through the end of March and won the division.

It seems turkey and tryptophan have the opposite effect on the Caps than it does on the rest of the population.

This year it appears Washington has gotten on track before Turkey Day and is ready to rebound from its 6-11-2 start, having won two straight by a combined 7-3. The team has played solid Caps-style hockey defensively while trying to open some things up offensively to take advantage of the weapons at hand. It is a far cry from the recent 8-1-0-1 record posted by tonight's opponent, the rampaging New York Rangers, but it is a start.

"We've had a couple really good efforts at home where we've played hard for 60 minutes," said coach Ron Wilson after a very brief practice yesterday. "We've endured a couple rough patches during games but been able to build some confidence, especially for [goalie] Olie Kolzig because he's been able to make the big saves when we needed them. He made a couple at key points [Wednesday] night when the game was tied."

The Caps outshot Tampa Bay 48-25 en route to a 3-2 victory and there were times when several minutes would go by before the puck crossed into the Caps' half of the ice and somebody had to shake the netminder awake.

"The hardest thing for your goalie is when your team is playing as well as we were with the sustained pressure and then after five minutes in the other end, [the opponents] come down," Wilson said. "Staying focused is probably the hardest thing for a goalie and Olie did a great job of doing that during the last two games."

Wilson doesn't buy into the slow-start theory, at least not this year. He has another explanation.

"I view this as a slump, three-to-four weeks into the season," he said. "I thought actually we started quite well when you factor in the schedule (11 of the first 13 on the road) and a couple key people out. At the 11-game point when we had played nine on the road we were 5-4-1 and should have won that game in Atlanta (1-0 loss), we'd have come home 6-4-1 and everybody would have said what a great start it was, considering.

"We had two bad weeks, that's the way I'm looking at it, and it was kind of understandable. I know people will say it's just an excuse, but the road really sucked some energy out of us and put us behind the eight ball in terms of injuries to key people."

When Washington played the Rangers in New York in the third game of the season, it was the Rangers who were struggling, trying to find themselves and make all the new pieces fit. One of the major pieces was goalie Mike Richter, who was coming off knee surgery and still a question mark. The questions have been answered: he's 11-4-1 with a 2.71 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

"They're playing great and have some great players who have elevated their games," Wilson said. "Everybody's talking about everybody else on their team but you can't discount Richter. He's led the revival. The nights when they've been outshot badly, Mike's been unbelievable."


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