Monday, November 7, 2005

Slowly but surely, the Washington Capitals’ great personnel experiment appears to be coming together. It is early — very early — but the signs are there.

The Caps yesterday defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4, scoring one short-handed and three power-play goals and holding the Leafs’ highly rated power play to a single goal that came with a two-man advantage.

The youth-dominated Caps accomplished the following yesterday:

• Scored their first 5-on-4 power play goal in 656 minutes and 55 seconds, nearly 11 full games. Their last 5-on-4 power play goal came with 55 seconds left in the first period in their third gameof the season.

• Won back-to-back games for the first time this season.

• Won a game this season for the first time by a score other than 3-2.

• Scored more than three goals for the first time this season.

• Held a two-goal lead — twice — for the first time this season.

• Drew a crowd of nearly 13,000 to MCI Center on a beautiful fall day to a game that ended less than an hour before a Redskins game began.

The victory left the Caps with a 6-8 record — six more wins than one Toronto columnist predicted the Caps would get all season.

Alex Ovechkin, 20, scored the ninth and 10th goals of his rookie season, and Bryan Muir, Matt Pettinger (short-handed) and Brian Willsie added goals for the Caps to complement an excellent effort by goalie Olie Kolzig.

“That’s it, that’s the game,” said Caps coach Glen Hanlon when asked about special teams.

Said Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn, Hanlon’s mentor when they were with the Vancouver Canucks: “It’s a pretty unhappy outcome, pretty dissatisfying. The fact is, we didn’t work hard enough tonight to get any kind of result.”

The result might have been dictated by the Leafs (7-6-2), an older team, being tired. Yesterday’s game was their third in four days, and they had played the previous night at home before flying to Washington for a late afternoon game.

Those, however, are the breaks of scheduling, breaks that eventually will catch up to the Caps, too.

The game was decided by younger players playing well and not making the youthful mistakes that cost teams games.

“I know we’ve got a young team, and our youngest guy up front [Ovechkin] is definitely a huge leader,” defenseman Steve Eminger, 22, said. “But at some point you’ve got to park the age [excuse] and you’ve just got to play hockey, you’ve got to battle your hearts out. I think that’s what a lot of the younger guys are doing right now.”

There were a number of opportunities for the Caps to fold, but that didn’t happen. The Caps grabbed a 2-0 first-period lead thanks to special teams, only to see the Leafs easily gain a tie by the end of the period.

The Caps went from Oct.8 to the start of yesterday’s game with just two power play goals, both with a two-man advantage. Hanlon and his staff tirelessly drilled the team to improve in that area while still preaching that building a team was most important. Yesterday, those efforts were rewarded in both areas.

“A huge part of this game is mental both as individuals and as a group,” Hanlon said when asked about power play success finally coming. “The confidence that players seem to get by scoring goals is certainly no secret.”

Notes Hanlon and the Caps won with a Band-Aid lineup again. Wing Matt Bradley (groin) was taken off injured reserve yesterday so defenseman Nolan Yonkman (hip pointer) could go on. Pettinger and Jeff Friesen, who could not practice Saturday, played yesterday, as did Bradley. Defensemen Jamie Heward (arm) and Ivan Majesky (knee), right wings Petr Sykora (back) and Stephen Peat (broken hand) and center Dainius Zubrus (groin) did not play. Also sitting for the second game in a row was veteran center Andrew Cassels, a healthy scratch. …

Among the healthy scratches for Toronto was right wing Wade Belak, who, at minus-10, has the worst plus-minus in the league.

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