- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

One might think that after Saturday’s 3-1 home loss to Buffalo coach Glen Hanlon would have his Washington Capitals working on their offense. Guess again.

Hanlon spent yesterday’s entire practice at Piney Orchard stressing defensive zone play to his last-place team which winds up a five-game homestand tonight against Boston.

Hanlon, a coach in the Washington organization for five seasons and an opposing goalie during many of the Caps’ best years, knows the franchise was built on defense. From Washington’s first playoff year (1983) through 2000, its defense averaged sixth in the NHL. Since then, the defense finished 13th, 26th and 12th and is currently 29th despite some improvement since Hanlon replaced the fired Bruce Cassidy on Dec.10. Washington allowed 3.16 goals a game while going 8-18-1-1 under Cassidy compared to a 2.94 goals-against and a 3-2-2 record under former goalie Hanlon.

“To me, defense is a mindset,” Hanlon said. “It’s an emphasis and prioritizing. Unless the defensive posture is a priority, you’ll always struggle with your goals-against.”

Hanlon had the Caps doing 3-on-3 drills close to the net because mistakes there can be killers as shown when the Sabres’ Miroslav Satan took advantage of errors by goalie Olie Kolzig and defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski to tie Saturday’s game late in the first period.

“You can make a bad read 180 feet away and have 180 feet to react to it,” Hanlon explained. “Fifteen feet from your own net, things are compressed. These are the things that you work on at the start of training camp and we’re sort of doing them now.”

Defenseman Brendan Witt, who returned to the lineup against Buffalo after missing Hanlon’s first seven games because of a shoulder injury, likes the coach’s approach.

“The only way we’re going to make a run at the playoffs is if we tighten up our defense,” said Witt, a defensive mainstay during nine years as a Cap. “We’ve gotten away from what this team used to be about. Bruce was more offensive-minded. Glen is getting us back to the fundamentals.”

Hanlon said the addition of new assistant Jay Leach, who filled that role with defensive-minded New Jersey in 2001-2002, gives his defensive focus even more credibility.

“Players think that it’s stifling to be a good defensive team,” Hanlon said. “We want them to think in terms of [the Stanley Cup champion Devils]. If you have a good defensive posture, you get the puck sooner, you’re fresher and you have some room for offensive creativity. If you end up spending 25 seconds in your own zone, when you [finally] get the puck, it’s hard to make an offensive attack and sustain offensive zone play. We want the puck as soon as we can.”

Notes — With Witt back, the Caps sent defenseman Dwayne Zinger down to Portland (Maine) of the American Hockey League. Zinger, 27, called up only because more proven defensemen were hurt, was a pleasant surprise with an assist and a plus-2 defensive rating in seven games.

Forward Brian Willsie didn’t practice because of what was termed a mild concussion that apparently also kept him out of the Buffalo game. Defenseman Jason Doig was excused for personal reasons. It’s believed there was a death in his wife’s family.

Injured center Michael Nylander skated for 45 minutes, a day after being on the ice for an hour. Nylander, who broke his right leg when he went flying into the boards during practice on Oct.3, was originally supposed to be back in four to six weeks. The Caps now say a more realistic timetable was 8-10 weeks. It has been 11 weeks, but Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who suffered an identical injury in August, needed 13 weeks to return to the field. Nylander is expected to return to practice soon and make his 2003-2004 debut in January. Hanlon said when Nylander joins the lineup, center Jeff Halpern will switch to right wing in order to keep his place among the top three lines.

“I’m feeling so much better than I did two weeks ago,” said Nylander, who finished last year with an NHL-high streak of 310 consecutive games. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to be playing some time, the sooner the better.”

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