- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

The Washington Capitals have scored more goals this season than they had at the same point last season. However, no one is talking about the Caps resurgent offense.

It is the uncharacteristic statistics the defense has registered this season that has caused much of the talk round the NHL. The Caps have allowed more goals this season than all but one other team (Atlanta) in the league. That is a radical departure from a team that prides itself on suffocating defense and stellar goaltending.

Before last night's games, the Caps had given up 122 goals this season, an average of 3.13. Washington has scored 113, a healthy total for a team that normally struggles for any sort of offense, and an increase over what the Caps have produced in recent years.

But, as one might expect, those numbers are a bad omen.

Only twice in the past 20 seasons (1997 and '99) have the Caps given up more goals than they scored and both were the only occasions in which Washington missed the postseason. And if the season ended last night, the Caps would be on the outside looking in.

The blame for the defensive lapses can and should be equally shared among the forwards, defensemen and goalies. But it is the defensemen who are suffering the most. They're missing a key individual who won't be back until next season.

Calle Johansson, the club's best all-around defenseman, sustained a shoulder injury in the second game of the season, played nine more games then underwent rotator cuff surgery which ended his year. Wait, there's more.

Left wing Steve Konowalchuk, the team's best defensive forward, played his last game on Oct. 13 but is expected to be back after the Olympic break next month. But it seems whatever short-term injuries the team experiences these days such as defenseman Brendan Witt and wing Ulf Dahlen, both doubtful for tonight's game against the New York Islanders always seem to involve responsible defensive personnel.

"When you look around the league at the teams that have been missing at one point or another what you would consider their best overall defenseman, they don't win," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. "We've been missing Calle. Last year when St. Louis was missing Chris Pronger, they couldn't win. Colorado went six weeks without Adam Foote and look at them.

"You need your best people in there because the margin of error is so slim. It's hard enough to beat people when you have a healthy lineup. It compounds things when you're missing key people and it usually shows up the most when your best defenseman is out of the lineup."

The Islanders suddenly find themselves in the same situation.

Kenny Jonsson, New York's best defenseman, missed two games with a mild concussion and the team gave up five goals in each of those games. One was a 6-5 victory after New York gave up four late goals and was forced to overtime to beat Montreal. And now New York has lost promising rookie defenseman Radek Martinek for the season after he had knee surgery.

Wilson maintains there is no simple solution to any of these problems. It always takes time to work the problems out.

"Everybody has to compensate [for the losses] and it takes your team a while to grow accustomed to that," he said. "You can talk about it all you want but until the guys see the results, or the lack of them, it takes a while to adjust."


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