- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2002

Washington Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt rode the stationary bike yesterday, his right hand gripping the handlebar very gingerly, the thumb painfully exposed.
"It could have been a lot worse," he said. "I got lucky and nothing turned up fractured."
But his right thumb is sprained with significant ligament damage, bad enough to keep him out of the lineup "at least a week," coach Ron Wilson said. He then repeated himself as if to emphasize the time frame: "I mean at least a week."
It is the latest blow to the Caps' attempts to get their act in gear after staggering to a wretched first-half performance, two games under .500 through Thursday's 41st game, allowing 3.13 goals a game, the second worst defense in the 30-team NHL.
And those figures are excellent compared to the team's road statistics in the first half a record of 5-13-3, just 13 out of a possible 42 points, allowing 3.48 goals a game while answering with just 2.24 goals a game.
The team's two-faced approach is baffling. It was ranked 11th at home through 41 games with a record of 11-5-4 but 25th away from MCI Center and that translates into the distinct possibility that the playoffs are no more than a pipe dream.
"To me, I think we're pretty consistent at home," Wilson said yesterday. "You're not going to be perfect, no team is, it's just that we're consistently bad on the road. We've had only a few games where we felt good about ourselves, like the game in Dallas (a 3-2 win Dec.28), where we really competed hard for 60 minutes."
Saturday in Boston, which marked the first game of the second half, the Caps competed in spurts, enough to be a nuisance but rarely a threat.
"There were parts where we competed hard but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot, [committing] turnovers and missing assignments that don't seem to be a part of our game when we play at home," Wilson said.
The 7-4 drubbing the Bruins administered Saturday is a good example of the club's inconsistent play. Just three weeks earlier Washington beat the Bruins 2-1 but that game was at home.
"We didn't have a great offensive night that game but defensively we did a real good job," Wilson said. "The idea [Saturday] was to play the same kind of game against the Bruins, we prepared for the same kind of game we had in Dallas low-scoring, hard-checking. Turnovers, missed assignments, the penalty-killing lets you down, you get back in the game, we're playing well at the start of the second and we turn the puck over two times in a row. You just hand the puck over to the other team and then don't defend diligently enough and before you know it, you're out of the game."
The Caps have 39 points at the turn; last year they had 45 at the same point and were four games over .500 (18-14-8-1). They had given up 102 goals; this season that figure is 127. Washington was in first place in the Southeast Division; this year they're second but 11 points off Carolina's pace.
The difference in the two seasons is defense four of the team's top defensive players are out with injuries, two of them long-term. The players asked to fill those shoes have not been able to do so effectively, and a near collapse on the road is the result.
A year ago at the halfway point the Caps were 10th defensively in the league, giving up 2.43 goals a game. This season they are next-to-last, giving up 3.07. The penalty-killing on the road last year was 11th; this season it's 26th, surrendering a goal almost a quarter of the time.
Individually, Peter Bondra finished the first half a point (40) behind his play of last season (41) but he has three additional goals. Adam Oates is ahead of his pace as is Sergei Gonchar. Jaromir Jagr had 24 goals, 48 points and was plus-12 at this time a year ago in Pittsburgh; he had 14 goals, 36 points and was minus-6 at Thursday's midway point with the Caps and admits he is not playing well.
On the other side, there is no Steve Konowalchuk, no Calle Johansson and the 15 goals and 43 points they contributed last season.
Goaltending has been just as inconsistent as the rest of the team but is more difficult to judge. Many times Olie Kolzig and Craig Billington have faced the opposition virtually alone with predictable results.
Meanwhile, Wilson was saying it's a blessing that no surgery was needed to repair Witt's thumb, to reattach ligament to bone. But he also said the situation would be re-evaluated at the end of the week to see if he had made healing progress.
Wilson indicated the Caps will probably bring a defenseman in from the minors today so the Caps have at least seven on hand. But unless his name is Rod Langway or Mark Tinordi, it is unclear now much of a difference one individual can make.


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