Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Washington Capitals finished the first half of the 2005-06 season just about where most prognosticators thought they would: near the bottom of the NHL.

“Hey, we got 31 points in 41 games, and to be honest, that’s more than I thought we would get,” said one season ticket holder who asked not to be identified. “It was a tough loss [Tuesday night] to Chicago, but it felt awfully good to see them come back [from a 3-0 deficit to force overtime]. They’re getting better. You can see it, but they have a ways to go.”

That is a statement nobody in management or the Caps’ dressing room would argue with.

“We could use some more goals,” general manager George McPhee said. “We like the way the defense has played, and the goaltending has been good. We think we have some young players who can score for us. We’ll see what the second half brings.”

The Caps are halfway through the first year of their great experiment, rebuilding almost from scratch after tearing apart an expensive, unproductive team. The Caps assembled a group of their own draft picks and valued prospects from other teams who were obtained via trades. They acknowledged, albeit privately, that this would probably be a long season.

But at times the inexperienced Caps have been fun to watch, harassing the opposition, paying little or no heed to league hierarchy as they occasionally mow down better clubs.

When things don’t run smoothly, though, the results can be painful.

“Where were they for the first 30 minutes?” the season ticket holder asked after Washington fell three goals behind an undermanned Chicago team that had lost 10 in a row. Coach Glen Hanlon was asking the same question.

Alex Ovechkin, the extraordinarily talented left wing from Moscow, is worth the price of admission nightly. He has 26 goals and 51 points in 41 games, a pace that would wipe out every Caps rookie record. He and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh are at the top of possibly the best rookie crop in league annals and have been running neck-and-neck for the Calder Trophy since the season started.

Without Ovechkin, the Caps would have dropped out of sight weeks ago. The rookie has 23 percent of the Caps’ 115 goals and has had a hand in 45 percent of their total offense. The team has 23 power-play goals, and he has 12 of them. He has two game-winners plus three shootout clinchers and a short-handed score, is second in the league in shots with 196 and is a force to be reckoned with in Texas hold ‘em on the team’s road trips.

But Ovechkin can’t do it alone, and 41 games have shown that. He is an exceptional presence on the ice but could use a top-notch center and right wing to take better advantage of his abilities and make it harder for other clubs to bottle him up. Those players will have to come through trades or free agency.

McPhee and Hanlon point to individual advancements that have been made through the first half, and no one has come along further than defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and center Brian Sutherby. Sutherby, hampered by a groin problem throughout his 109-game NHL career before this season, centers the best line on the club and is on pace to score 18 goals.

Boston took Morrisonn 19th overall in 2001 but sent him and two draft picks to Washington in a March 2004 trade for defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Hanlon and assistant coach Jay Leach have shown patience with Morrisonn, who has turned into the team’s steadiest defender at age 23.

At the halfway pole, the Caps have four more points than they did in 2003-04, and their offense is up 14 goals, but they have allowed twice that many in return.

In a season in which special teams mean more than ever, the power play has dropped dramatically from fourth in the league in 2003-04 to 28th, from scoring 21.6 percent of the time to 13.4. Penalty-killing, a poor 81.6 percent two years ago, is even worse — 78.1 percent.

“We’re in every game, but we’ve had a lot of one-goal losses [12]. That’s the most difficult thing,” McPhee said. “The difference between winning and losing for us right now is real thin.”

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