- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

The numbers are deceptive.

The Washington Capitals were only two games below .500 (12-14-2) and six points out of first place in the Southeast Division before last night but in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.

Not to worry? Not for everybody. There are some members of the team who remember with something less than fondness last season's last-minute drive for a playoff spot, a drive that fell short.

The Caps begin a four-game western road swing tonight in Anaheim, a spot where it always has been tough for Washington to pick up a point. The trip continues Friday night in Phoenix, Saturday night in San Jose and Monday night in Denver against Colorado.

For the Caps to begin to regain some momentum, they have to find a way to come out of this trip with at least four out of a possible eight points. To do that, Washington has to start playing 60-minute games, something it has done only a handful of times this season.

"Turnovers are killing us," said left wing Steve Konowalchuk, the team captain. "The way the game is today, turnovers are such a big part of the game, giving the other team transition and speed. We've got to get better in that area, and if we do, we'll start frustrating other teams and creating more chances for ourselves.

"Good defense creates good offense. We've got to get that mentality."

There is no disputing the premise, but few of the Caps appear to be turning that into fact. Washington has been coughing up early goals and/or late goals to turn what appear to be wins into defeats. Against Buffalo on Saturday night, the Caps played a decent game for 50 minutes, then got outworked, outplayed and outscored in the last 10 and lost 4-3.

"It was a game that was right there for us," coach Bruce Cassidy said. "It looked like a pretty good game for the first 40 minutes, even the third period. We started with a big goal, then all of a sudden just fell apart, just came unglued."

Why?

"We're casual," Cassidy said without hesitation. "We don't play with a sense of urgency in a lot of situations. It's not systems; no matter what system you play, if your players outwork their players, you're going to have a chance to win. We're probably not as gifted and talented as everyone makes us out to be; remember, we went [nine] games in a row at the start of the season without scoring more than two goals.

"It's urgency, urgency in getting the job done, bearing down and the work ethic being there 60 minutes a night. When we play 60 minutes, we're a good team. When we don't, we're predictable and average."

The Caps are 1-4-1 in their last six road games. The win came against Pittsburgh and was Washington's biggest of the season. But the game before that, the Caps were beaten by a late goal in Atlanta, pointing out the team's lack of consistency.

"We've reminded guys from day one that there were lessons to be learned from last year," Cassidy said. "We talked about it after the game against Buffalo the Sabres didn't do anything spectacular except go out and work their tails off to get the last two goals. We didn't have to put on a show. All we had to do was be diligent with the puck, keep it out of our end, play in their end and take advantage of opportunities."

Notes Center Trent Whitfield, called up by the Caps from their Portland, Maine, farm team on Monday, is the reigning American Hockey League player of the week. Whitfield scored three goals and four assists in three games last week to move among the league leaders with 12 goals and 28 points in 25 games. But he really lit things up Saturday in St. John's, Newfoundland, when he had two goals and six points in a 7-3 win over the Maple Leafs. The six points tied the club record held by Keith Jones and Andrew Brunette. In the same game left wing Andreas Salomonsson had five assists, tying another Portland record. He also was called up.


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