Saturday, October 22, 2005

There were times yesterday when Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon was tongue-tied, nearly speechless in trying to describe what happened to his team against the Panthers in Florida on Thursday night in a 3-2 loss.

Indeed, when one looks at a respectable first-period performance and the same thing in the third, it is mind-boggling what happened in the middle that led to power play and shorthanded goals that meant the difference between a win and a loss.

Washington took only four penalties but Florida converted two of them. The Panthers took only two penalties but scored off one of them, and that was the game. The Caps were perfect at even strength but woefully deficient on special teams.

“You can’t avoid the fact there were two separate games,” Hanlon said yesterday before conducting a team meeting and film session, followed by an optional skate. “It was just a matter of pucks along the walls … just turning the puck over and over all over the place. The question is, how are we going to prevent that from happening the next time? They happen, things like that creep into a team’s game all the time but somewhere it stops.”

Alex Ovechkin poked home Brian Willsie’s rebound less than two minutes into the game and Washington got out of the period with a 1-1 draw after outshooting Florida 13-10. In the third, Ovechkin had another highlight-reel goal to make it close at the end, with the Caps holding a 12-11 shooting advantage.

But what happened in between would make great footage for a Halloween horror show. Florida had 28 shots on goal in the second period, a record for both teams. Eleven minutes into the period, the Panthers had outshot the Caps 19-1 and nobody is quite sure where the one came from.

What turns a decent performance into a horror show and suddenly reverts to the original?

Hanlon says it’s inexperience. The Caps are a young team and it takes younger players time to figure out a solution to an on-ice problem, whereas a veteran might have the situation rectified in seconds.

“Fifteen minutes could be the difference between winning and losing and that’s how you develop as a team,” he said of the banter in the dressing room between the second and third. “It’s individuals who have to say, ‘These are the things I do well, I’m going to go out and do them.’ If you’re watching your team turn the puck over and over, you want to be able to say you don’t want to be part of the problem, you want to be part of the solution. In short, what it means is take responsibility for yourself.”

Of course, Hanlon couldn’t guarantee the performance wouldn’t be repeated, saying the Caps are in a season-long teaching experience and that learning takes time.

“Success takes months, sometimes it takes years,” he said. “It took Tampa Bay years to be successful. Very few people come into the league as a Gretzky, so we have to understand that there is a process for all these people to get better.”

But there also appear to be limitations to how long inept performances will be tolerated.

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