- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

If nothing else, any illusions the Washington Capitals harbored about themselves have been erased. That will happen when your club is spanked 6-2 and 5-1 in back-to-back games as the Caps were by Toronto and Detroit.
"I don't think we're in a panic mode," coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday. "It's a three-game losing streak, and we need to win some games, no doubt. But we're not panicking."
Nonetheless, the coach conducted a brief team meeting yesterday morning on what was supposed to be a day off, then put the team through an hour-long practice dealing with play away from the puck in all three zones and emphasizing the neutral zone trap.
"I hate the trap, but if it makes you win, it makes you win," Cassidy said. "It's discipline, it's structure, it's three guys who have to be together, and the defense has to read off them. It's execution, it's patience, it's discipline."
And the Caps haven't shown a lot of any of that stuff lately. The power play, which had shown signs of recovery after scraping the bottom of the barrel, has connected once in the last nine games (Washington was 0-for-6 against the Red Wings), and the Caps are even having trouble setting up. Washington has scored only seven goals combined in its last five games while allowing 18.
"Our game has slipped so much in the last two weeks that when you play the good teams and your game is slipping, you get blown out of the building," goalie Olie Kolzig said. "We've got to get back to playing like we did before the All-Star break. We're not as defensively sound as we were; we're not getting the job done in the offensive zone.
"[Saturday] night showed just how far we are from the elite teams in the league. If we had played Detroit a month ago, who knows if we would have won, but it definitely wouldn't have been a 5-1 game. Our game has slipped, and we addressed that today."
Cassidy, Kolzig and others agreed that the recovery process has to start where it always does for Washington: with the defense.
"The biggest thing we talked about was better defensive play," Cassidy said. "It's what got us into first place, and everyone is capable of that. I know we all want everyone to score, but I think it's easier to contribute on defense. I said [at the meeting] we need to get back to basics. Let's get real good at it."
Washington got a break yesterday when Buffalo defeated Tampa Bay 4-1, keeping the Lightning one point behind the Caps in the Southeast Division, though they have a game in hand. The Lightning (65 points) have blown back-to-back opportunities to overtake Washington.
"Defense is where we went when we had our last [slump]," Cassidy said. "We revisited the fact that maybe if we win a game 2-1 that things will cure themselves, eventually we'll score on the power play and get out of the slump. We need to tighten up at home especially. We seem to be tighter on the road, gambling less."
Washington gets a chance to show whether it has learned anything in its last two games when it plays host to the Montreal Canadiens tonight in the third game of a four-game homestand that hasn't produced a win. The Caps have scored just one goal in two games against the Canadiens this season.
Notes
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar missed practice with a bruised foot but is expected to play. Left wing Peter Bondra missed practice with a tender knee after being crunched between Detroit players Saturday night, leaving the game but returning. His status is not as certain as Gonchar's. Defenseman Ken Klee (back spasms) is out, but defenseman J.F. Fortin (back spasms) went through the full practice yesterday and is thought to be eligible to come off injured reserve for tonight if he is needed.


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