Thursday, October 5, 2006

The Washington Capitals tonight are looking for their fourth win in a row — a seemingly odd stat considering the club has yet to play its first game of the 2006-07 season.

The Caps closed last season with three straight victories and will try to extend that run against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

The game marks the start of Phase II of the Caps’ major rebuilding program, a regime that began after a massive salary slash during the 2003-04 season in which most veterans with any trade value were dealt.

One of those exiting Washington was right wing Jaromir Jagr, who ended up in Manhattan with a contract worth $11 million a season — $3.5 million of which the Caps still must pay.

The Caps, meanwhile, re-acquired two players, wings Alexander Semin from Russia and Richard Zednik from Montreal. They also have free agent acquisitions Brian Pothier and John Erskine, both defensemen; and defenseman Mike Green and center-wing Jakub Klepis, both graduates of the Calder Cup-winning Hershey Bears.

Some of the faces are new, but some of the club’s problems are old.

The Caps continue to take a high number of penalties, continue to have trouble killing those infractions and aren’t doing a whole lot better on the power play.

To be successful this season, the Caps must improve one of those areas in drastic fashion. Washington averaged more than nine minor penalties and 18 penalty minutes a game last season, and those averages have grown during the exhibition season to more than 10 penalties and 20 minutes in the box nightly.

“Once you start killing 10 a night you know something is going to go wrong,” coach Glen Hanlon said yesterday after putting the team through an abbreviated practice. “You spend too much time in your own zone, there’s too much of a risk to go down to 5-on-3. So if we can eliminate penalties, if we can just cut it to five, we’ll be better.”

Hanlon acknowledged that one of the categories must improve dramatically for the team to have any measure of success. Like any other coach, he would prefer that the penalty-killing improve first. It had plenty of work last season: The Caps took a league-high 660 minor penalties.

“If your power play is really good you might get two a game, but if your penalty-killing is really good maybe they don’t get anything,” he said.

Washington’s power play scored less than 15 percent of the time last season, recording 72 goals. Its penalty-killers allowed 116 goals, letting the opposition score on more than 21 percent of its chances, a percentage that ranked 28th in the league.

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