- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

As recently as Dec.16 the Washington Capitals were floundering, three games below .500 and facing a tough four-game stretch against some of the league's top competition. Washington hasn't lost a game in regulation since.
It took the first half of the season for rookie coach Bruce Cassidy and his Caps to get to know each other, to find out what would work and what wouldn't and who could be pushed and who would rebel.
It appears there will be few losers to come out of this. The Caps have recovered to finish the first half atop the Southeast Division at 18-16-5-2; they have not lost a game in regulation since Dec.14 and have points in 10 straight (5-0-3-2); four of their last five games have gone to overtime with a record of 1-0-1-2.
It is not, however, where the Caps thought they would be or wanted to be. Expectations that perhaps were unrealistically high, coupled with a mindset that wanted to wipe out last season's wholesale embarrassment, may have had the team battling for the conference lead about now.
But times have changed in the past month.
"Two weeks ago, a month ago, I didn't know what we were going to do the way we were playing," said Cassidy whose team will have had five days off before its next game Friday at Carolina. "We were inconsistent, we weren't structured every night. Now we do a better job of making better decisions on the ice. Now that we're playing better defense I can see light at the end of the tunnel, especially with our penalty-killing. The power play is still an issue but the penalty-killing seems to be turning the corner."
Specifically, special teams have been a disaster this season. To wit:
cThe power play has dropped to an efficiency rate of less than 15 percent, ranked 24th in the league, accounting for just 27 goals this season. Despite having Jaromir Jagr, one of the most creative scorers in the league, the power play has not clicked with any regularity. Cassidy has tried a wide variety of personnel to find a solution but nothing has worked. Lately, he has come up with two units, a finesse unit (Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, et al) and a smash-mouth unit (Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk, Mike Grier, et al).
cThe penalty-killing has been worse rated 28th in the 30-team league allowing the opposition to score more than 20 percent of the time. It may be getting better (only three power-play goals allowed in the last five games) but it has a long way to go. Taking fewer lazy, unnecessary infractions would be a start.
Some of the problems, Cassidy admits, stem from the fact he was new to the league as a coach and, after years in the minors, probably thought NHL veterans were capable of more complex variations on old schemes. It didn't work out that way. It took two months for the coach to learn that some of the ideas he was trying to instill simply either would not work or not be accepted. The latter grates on him but he's let it pass.
Individually, this Olie Kolzig is vastly superior to the Olie Kolzig who tried to play on one knee last season. His save percentage (.922) is among the best in the NHL and his goals-against (2.44) is about a half goal lower than last season. There is no question he is the first-half MVP.
Two solid pairs have returned on defense (Brendan Witt-Calle Johansson and Ken Klee-Sergei Gonchar) and Jason Doig has emerged as a tough, reliable fifth player. A sixth is needed to work with Doig and provide some relief so the first two units are not worked too hard.
Up front, Jagr carried the team for the first two months, then Nylander took over. The Halpern line has been carrying a good share of the load of late and may eventually be better than the unit that included Ulf Dahlen two seasons ago.
Nylander and Grier were acquired by general manager George McPhee in trades very early in the season and it is hard to imagine where the club would be without them.
Jagr has struggled of late but so have Nylander, Peter Bondra and Lang. Bondra and Lang are streaky scorers; it may be Cassidy's wish that they don't both get hot at the same time so the wealth can be spread around.
"Certainly Jags stood out for the first 20 games," Cassidy said. "I don't think he's been himself lately, been banged up with everybody keying on him. I don't think he's 100 percent. I think he can use these days off."

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