Monday, November 13, 2006

The refrain is familiar, all too familiar to Washington Capitals’ fans — not to mention the coaching staff.

“It always goes back to the penalties,” one player said. “We put ourselves behind the 8-ball every night the same way. You’ve got the same guys killing [penalties] and the same guys who don’t get on the ice. It wrecks the flow. … If we keep playing like this and costing ourselves games, it’s going to be hard to get back into the race.”

Only the speaker this time wasn’t a Washington player. It was center Chris Gratton of Florida talking to reporters after the Panthers were beaten by New Jersey 4-2 on Saturday, with the Devils scoring three power-play goals.

The loss in New Jersey sparked a players-only meeting — a regularly scheduled agenda item for the Caps last season — after the Panthers dropped their third game in a row and 10th in 13.

That matters because the Caps play the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., tonight, hoping to extend their recent run of good play that has produced three wins in the last four games.

Washington earlier this season — and all of last season — ran through a series of games in which it also took too many penalties, which is bad enough in itself but fatal if a team can’t kill them off. On Saturday night against the Caps, the New York Rangers had four power plays, but Washington killed three of them, allowing a goal late after the game had been decided.

The Caps’ principal goal this season was to improve special teams production, and so far the results have been good. The improvement has not been dramatic, but the team is at least moving in the right direction.

Gordon scores

Caps center Boyd Gordon was being 100 percent sincere after the Rangers’ game when he said, “It feels good to contribute.” The only thing is, his coaches and teammates don’t care whether he scores again as long as he keeps playing like an angry wolverine.

Gordon scored the Caps’ first goal Saturday night on pure persistence, his first in 71 games since Oct. 11, 2003, against Atlanta. He now has two in his NHL career.

But nobody asks Gordon to be the next Alex Ovechkin, just like nobody asks Ovechkin to shadow the opposition’s best scorers and shut them down. That’s Gordon’s job, and he does it well.

“His role in this team and likely his place for a long time in the NHL will be winning faceoffs, penalty-killing and shutting down teams,” coach Glen Hanlon said. “If he went the whole year without scoring goals but still did the other stuff, I’m fine with that, very comfortable. He covers up for a lot of people’s mistakes. He’s played very well. I’m extremely happy for him.”

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