Friday, December 27, 2002

After spending most of the month of December below .500, the Washington Capitals have worked their way back to break-even. The next question they have to answer is whether they can climb above that mark, where they haven’t been in nearly six weeks.
The New Jersey Devils visit MCI Center tonight as the teams open a home-and-home set, with the Devils leading the Atlantic Division thanks in large measure to goaltender Martin Brodeur’s league-leading 17 victories. Brodeur has had to do a lot of it by himself because, as he has come to expect, he won’t get a load of offensive help from his teammates.
Washington is unbeaten in four (3-0-1) for the first time this season and is 6-3-1 in its last 10. The Caps got to .500 by knocking off, in order, Boston, the Islanders in New York and Tampa Bay.
“We’ve got ourselves back in a position where we can see first place,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We’ve had a couple days off, hopefully the guys enjoyed themselves but now it’s back to work.”
Washington (16-16-3) is 35 games into the 82-game season and already has more than half of its road games out of the way, eliminating a brutal portion of the schedule that did not prove fatal. In fact, Cassidy believes the most recent road swing, the four-game trip out west, may have brought the team closer.
“It’s been that way since we went west,” he said of the improved atmosphere. “The guys got together and it seems they’re a little looser, there’s more talk. I think it’s probably because everybody is contributing. You look at our three lines and we’re getting offense from everyone. We’re starting to score some goals and people like to do that, it’s fun. Olie Kolzig is back [from injury], the defensive pairs are a little more solidified and it seems there’s a little more togetherness because of that.”
Washington has scored 31 goals in its last 10 games and the team was shut out in two of them. But the special teams, especially the power play, haven’t responded.
“They bother me but we’ve gotten through the last three, four games with them,” Cassidy said. “Our penalty killing is coming around but the power play is just not there, not where we want it to be but we keep working on it. We’ve got a couple ideas that might work.”
Washington’s last power play goal was Dec.13 in Phoenix. The Caps are scoreless in five games on an 0-for-20 streak; they’ve scored just two power play goals in their last 12 games, going 2-for-57. (New Jersey is worse, ranked last in the league at 9.3 percent. The Devils haven’t scored a power play goal since before Thanksgiving.)
“We’ve got two guys who like to control the power play and they’ve both had success doing it, so we may have to just split it up, let the shooters shoot and let Jaromir Jagr run his thing with another overload,” Cassidy said.
“Jagr likes to orchestrate his part, and Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra like to do the shooting they were successful that way when Adam Oates was here. Jagr likes to run off the half wall and he was successful in Pittsburgh. It’s tough to try to get them to match and it hasn’t worked the majority of the time.
“Maybe it’s time to let one group do its thing and the other group do the other, and hopefully they’ll be happy taking their share of the power play. Whatever we have to do to get [scoring] is what we want to do. You certainly want to let your best players do their thing, but maybe they’ll have to do it separately.”
Notes The Caps had 23 players on the ice for practice yesterday plus wings Stephen Peat and Dainius Zubrus, both on injured reserve with hand injuries. Peat took a regular turn with the fourth line and appeared to be nearly ready to return. When that happens, the club will have to make a move because it is at the maximum right now. The holiday roster freeze ends at midnight tonight.

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