Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig knew exactly where the questions were headed.
“We had a 3-0 lead against New Jersey and we were 4-0 against Boston,” he said. “We put them away, but we were passive. We’ve got to find a way to put a team away and not give them that one opening where we make one mistake in the third period and it costs us.”
The subject was Wednesday afternoon’s 2-1 loss against Phoenix, a game in which Washington dominated every facet for the first two periods but never put the hammer down. The final nail was struck by the Coyotes.
Besides watching a five-game home winning streak slip away, the Caps for the first time lost a game they led after two periods. They had been 10-0-1 in that respect and even had a very respectable 5-2-2-1 record when tied after two.
“If you have a lead, you can’t just sit back and watch and hope it’s going to last another 20 minutes,” defenseman Calle Johansson said. “You have to play the same way, but at the same time, if you want to win, you really have to think defense. You can’t take any chances, but you can’t just sit back. It’s hockey sense you have to go hard, but you have to be careful.”
What is happening lately is an exact turnaround from earlier in the season. Then the Caps couldn’t score and therefore rarely held an early lead but rallied late in games to make them close. Now Washington is scoring in the first period but watching leads disappear in the third.
“We’ve been in a position lately to protect leads, which we weren’t at the start of the year, which is a good thing,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “The bad thing is, we’re still learning how to play with poise and confidence. We need to be a little more poised with the lead, a little more assertive.”
Washington was lulled to sleep by Phoenix. The Coyotes played the night before at home, then flew in and looked exhausted. Sergei Gonchar scored on a power play for the Caps midway through the second, and as the third started Washington had a 25-6 shooting advantage. If a game ever looked like curtains, that was it.
But Washington hadn’t done anything to win the game, just take the lead. In the Coyotes dressing room, coaches were telling players they were just one shot away from tying the game and two shots away from winning it. And that is precisely what happened.
“Kenny Klee hit a rut in the ice and fell down, and I didn’t come up with the save,” Kolzig said. “Other than that, I thought we played a pretty darned good game, one of our better games by far.
“Most of the time we’ve become too passive. We still have to learn to play with the lead. We’re not used to the success we’re having now. We just sit back and play defense. By doing that it allows teams to come at us with speed, get the puck in and create a forecheck. We get to running around, we’re tired, we haul somebody down and the next thing you know they score on the power play.”
Notes Barring the highly unusual move of him missing a game, Johansson will play in his 941st game for the Caps tonight against Columbus at MCI Center, breaking the tie he shared with Kelly Miller for most games played in a Washington uniform.
Left wing Peter Bondra missed practice yesterday after missing Wednesday’s game with the flu and is doubtful for tonight. “From what I’ve been told, he seems to get it a lot around Christmas,” Cassidy said. “But he skates so darn well and he’s in such good shape that I don’t think it’s going to affect him a whole lot [if he shows up and says he’s ready].” The Caps play the Rangers in New York tomorrow.