Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Coach Glen Hanlon postponed the Washington Capitals’ scheduled power-play practice yesterday. Two hours had been set aside for the troublesome extra-man units, but the key personnel needed to execute those drills were not available.

“It was strictly because of [a lack of] personnel,” Hanlon said. “Two of the six forwards we need were missing, so the groups wouldn’t have stayed the same anyway.”

With the Caps nearing the one-quarter point in the season, the two special teams are performing miserably. The penalty-killers, ranked 28th out of 30, are allowing opponents to score 22.7 percent of the time; anything above 15 percent is disastrous. The power play, ranked 29th out of 30, is connecting 11.4 percent of the time; the league average is 17.5 percent.

Hanlon had hoped to shuffle personnel in an effort to come up with new power-play combinations, but forwards Dainius Zubrus and Jeff Friesen were nursing groin injuries and did not skate. Andrew Cassels, who has at least one power-play goal in each of the last 15 seasons, including his current one, replaced Zubrus on the first line.

In each of the 11 games the Caps have lost this season, the blame can be placed on the special teams. The power play has scored just 11 goals (only three on the road, 6.5 percent), while the opposition has beaten Washington defenders 31 times, a differential of 20. In losing 3-2 to the Devils in New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, the Caps allowed three power-play goals and responded with none as their road record fell to 1-7.

“Since our last game, I’ve spent the whole time going over our penalties, how we take them, in what zones, who takes them, how many we’ve had,” Hanlon said. “It’s not where we play; it’s not how we play. Five-on-five, we’re there; it’s just the amount of penalties we take. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. Those are things we discussed, and they’re only privy to the people inside this room.”

Washington has been short-handed 41 more times this season than it has had an advantage, and it has cost the team 20 goals. More than that, as fragile and young as this club is, the time it spends defending against power plays is time it can’t spend attacking.

Who takes the penalties that put the Caps in deep trouble almost nightly is on the stat sheet. The better question, the one Hanlon won’t answer, is why?

Chris Clark, for instance, averages 14 minutes of ice time but leads the team in penalty minutes (36). His job is to create havoc on the ice, taking brief high-energy shifts punctuated with plenty of crisp body contact — a role that leads directly to the penalty box.

“We can’t kill 10, 11, 12 penalties [a game] without something bad happening,” the coach said. “And it’s disappointing because you watch us play in the last few games … and it’s penalties at bad times.”

For the Caps, it appears that penalties at any time is not the right time.

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