- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

As captain of the Washington Capitals, Jeff Halpern must see nothing but bright horizons. He must dispel the dark clouds that swirl around things like the Caps’ special teams, units that are special only in a negative sense.

As a result, after Friday night’s 4-2 come-from-behind victory over the Montreal Canadiens, Halpern talked about the importance of gaining ground now rather than later.

“We’re trying to claw our way back to that .500 level so we give ourselves a chance at the end of the season,” the veteran center said. “We’re seven games [under .500] right now. If we go three games over .500 every month for the rest of the season, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Anything is possible: The Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox have won the World Series the past two seasons, so there is no disputing Halpern’s statement.

But even before last night’s games, the Caps (12-19) were more than a dozen points behind the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference, struggling not for playoff position but for lottery position in next June’s draft.

However, the Capitals are playing better than during the first six weeks of the season. They still lose more often than they win, but the margin of defeat now is usually a goal or two, not a half-dozen or more.

Progress is being made with a young team, but whether enough can be made by the time postseason arrives is questionable.

“At times it looks like we can do good things offensively,” Halpern said. “The four goals [against the Canadiens], they were all the result of good, hard play. We’ve been playing hard. We just haven’t had a lot of the bounces go our way.”

Halpern’s optimism is guarded, as well it should be. The Caps have about drawn even on equal-strength play, but they are suffering greatly when it comes to special teams. They rank at or near the bottom of the league on the power play and in penalty killing, and this season is proving one in which special teams count at least as much as — if not more than — 5-on-5 play.

“When we weren’t in the box, I thought we played pretty well,” Halpern said.

Playing well, however, doesn’t always mean your team will win. The Caps had a team-record 55 shots on goal in regulation and lost 3-2 to the Florida Panthers on Dec. 18.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is get pucks to the net and outwork teams along the boards, something we’d like to build on,” Halpern said. “But now pucks are just going to the net. Some of the time when we’re getting a lot of those chances we’re trying to get second and third opportunities. It’s really just getting the bounces.”

Said Canadiens defenseman Mathieu Dandenault: “From all the games we’ve watched and the coaching staff has watched, they said, ‘You know what, [the Caps] come out and play for 60 minutes. They don’t have the most gifted players, but at the same time, what they lack in skill they certainly have in determination and grit. We knew they’d play hard for 60.”

The Capitals play host to a somewhat dispirited team in the Boston Bruins tonight at MCI Center. Boston recently traded its leader, center Joe Thornton, to the San Jose Sharks in an effort to shock the team to life. The Bruins, however, barely have played .500 hockey since the deal was made.

This is the first of a three-game road swing for Boston, and the Bruins return home to face the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators back-to-back.

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