- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

Even with one of the best collections of offensive talent in the NHL, with players who can create magic with a stick in their hands and a puck within reach, the Washington Capitals do not score well at even strength. On the power play, however, it’s a different story.

The Caps are scoring at a 22.9 percent clip with the extra man, the second highest in the NHL (Philadelphia is first at 23.5), and that number continues to rise as the season goes on. In Washington’s last nine games, it has scored 12 times in 38 chances (31.6 percent).

The power play is a critical component for the Caps. Entering tonight’s game against Buffalo at MCI Center, Washington had been outscored 76-57 at even strength but had played the opposition to a draw (36-36) on special teams.

Take away even a few of the Caps’ 35 power-play goals and any speculation on recovery from a horrible start to the season is a moot point.

The key has been familiarity; the players have been practicing several variations of the same principles since the start of training camp. As such, the unit has progressed from 17.2 percent at the end of October to its current 22.9 percent. Those principles are simple: do not stay in one spot, keep the puck moving constantly and fire as many shots as possible on the defense and goalie early in the two-minute period.

And because the unit has been together since training camp, the players have gotten to know each other and their habits. Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra are the points, Robert Lang quarterbacks from one side and Jaromir Jagr from the other and Dainius Zubrus and Kip Miller split time as the fifth man.

The reason for that split is simple. Coach Glen Hanlon likes the tank-like Zubrus crashing the net early in power plays, softening up the opposition and creating screens. Zubrus then leaves to rest before taking another shift at the end of the power play to ensure there is a large defending source on the ice. Miller’s creative mind and talented hands more than fill the void between.

“I believe in structure, and after that it’s just natural ability,” said Hanlon, who credits assistant coach Randy Carlyle with successfully running the unit. “Randy has credibility. He’s run NHL power plays. He won a Norris Trophy [in 1981 with Pittsburgh]. He has hands-on experience in the heat of the battle.”

Said Bondra, who leads the team with eight power-play goals (one short of his total last season) and has 133 in his career: “We’ve been working on this system all season long, and that’s one of the reasons we have improvement.”

Zubrus, Jagr and Lang have six apiece and Miller four

“We’re more flexible,” Bondra said. “We try to bring the defenders to us [outside the perimeter], and that way it is more open down low, and we can score goals bang-bang. Of course, we have the talent to put the puck in the net and make things happen.”

One key reason for the success has been puck and player movement. Caps power plays in the past often featured one puck handler who would stand in one spot and wait for a teammate to find an opening. Defenses would collapse on him and drive him out of the zone. Not anymore.

“With the familiarity, we know where the other guys are going to be on the ice. It eliminates the guesswork,” Lang said. “I think every time you leave a group of guys together, it creates familiarity and they can work things out. It pays off. Glen has let us do the things we need to do to make it succeed. We have a bunch of plays we can run. We just find out which ones work that night and do it.”

Notes — Defenseman Brendan Witt, out since Dec.8 with a shoulder injury, is tentatively listed to play tonight against Buffalo. It’s unclear which defenseman will come out of the lineup. …

Center Michael Nylander, out since training camp with a broken leg, continues to skate by himself. He hasn’t skated with the team yet and will require at least two weeks of on-ice conditioning with the team before he can play. …

Lang continues to lead the league in scoring (19 goals, 25 assists, 44 points), with Jagr tied for ninth (13-23-36) and Gonchar (4-31-35) tied for 12th. …

The Caps aren’t blowing anybody away this season but are only eight points out of a playoff spot as teams that sprinted to early leads are rejoining the pack. Buffalo, for instance, is winless in eight but is in the Northeast, toughest of the six divisions.

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