- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

At the end of the Washington Capitals’ practice yesterday, Olie Kolzig lay down on the ice and did his best Alex Ovechkin impression. He tried to duplicate “the goal” the rookie scored Monday in Phoenix, one for which he might be known for the rest of his career.

“He can’t do it. He’s a goalie,” Ovechkin chortled as Kolzig tried several times — unsuccessfully — to backhand a puck into the net while rolling over as teammates doubled over in laughter.

It has been a while since the Caps could laugh and joke around after practice. But 44 games into the 82-game schedule and in 14th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference, there finally seems to be a growing sense of optimism.

Tonight, Washington will go for its third consecutive victory when it plays host to the struggling St. Louis Blues, one of the few teams below the Caps in the standings. The injury-ravaged Blues have lost seven in a row but haven’t lost to the Caps in the last nine meetings going back to 1997.

For coach Glen Hanlon, whose team has not won three in a row since Jan. 10-13, 2003, tonight’s game is just another stop along a long rebuilding trail.

“Our next step of improvement is to play a 20-game stretch where we go .500,” Hanlon said. “If you play .500 for 20 games, that’s a pretty good cross-section of the schedule. We haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on those things. We’ve tried to get better and improve and work on our systems. Winning will be a byproduct of that.”

In other words, Hanlon sees the Caps improving. They are coming together as a team, playing better defense and finally starting to hold their own on special teams. Washington is still below average, but the hemorrhaging seems to have stopped.

The Caps’ power play has been running at 17 percent lately, which is a lot better than its former 11 percent. The penalty-killers have been at 80 percent for the last 13 games, a significant improvement, but both units have plenty of room to get better.

“We feel we have things in place,” Hanlon said, meaning to the point that the club can start thinking about ways to move higher in the standings.

“We have to learn how many points it takes to get into the playoffs. You can’t do that by winning a game here, losing a game there. At some point you’ve got to get on a roll if you hope to make the playoffs, and we have to learn how to do that.”

Learning how to lose is easy; learning how to win is a lot tougher.

“Today was one of those days where we discussed rebounding from a win,” the coach said, explaining what went on during his brief on-ice meeting with players as practice started.

“Sometimes rebounding from wins is just as difficult as rebounding from losses,” Hanlon continued, pointing out that Phoenix was coming off a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over Toronto on Monday only to get hammered 6-1 by the Caps.

His message: We’ve come quite a ways, but we have a long way to go.

Earlier, Ben Clymer was accidentally high-sticked in the face by Jeff Friesen, and on the next drill, Brian Sutherby nailed Dainius Zubrus in the face with another accidental high-stick.

Assistant coach Jay Leach then called for a new line, and someone near the bench replied, “I ain’t goin’ out there,” bringing a ripple of laughter from the players.

That kind of reaction was unthinkable even two weeks ago.

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