- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2008

High expectations make it tough to evaluate how much the Washington Capitals have progressed during a season that is nearly a month old.

In a 12-game span, there have been issues with the offense, the defense, the goaltending and the power play. There was a stretch of six games in which the Caps scored one goal or fewer four times. They have allowed a goal within the first three shots on net in half the games - including on the first shot four times - and the opponent has scored at least five goals in 25 percent of the games.

Oh yeah, the league MVP has scored in only one game, and the $4.5 million, free-agent goaltender is outside the top 30 in save percentage and goals-against average.

All of these negative indicators would have made sense a year ago, when the Caps floundered to a 5-14-1 start that cost coach Glen Hanlon his job. This season, the Caps are 6-4-2 and entered Friday two points out of first place in a division that nearly every pundit in North America predicted they would win.

“We started out with seven of our first 11 on the road, and we’ve gotten points in every game we’ve played at home,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We go out West with all the time changes. Then the expectations are maybe … would we have to have been 10-2 at this point for people to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we expect?’ It is a tough league, especially at the beginning of the year, when every team thinks it has a chance.

“I’d love to be 12-0, but I don’t think we’re any lower than I thought we’d be.”

The typical NHL team wins more than it loses when it scores first and loses nearly every contest when it trails entering the third period. In keeping with the unnatural theme of this season, Washington has it backward. When the Caps score first, they are 2-2-1; only Chicago is worse when striking first. When the Caps yield the first goal, they are 4-2-1; only two teams have won more times in that situation. Washington’s .500 winning percentage when leading after two periods is tied with Pittsburgh’s mark for worst in the league.

Thursday was the latest example. The Caps allowed the first goal and trailed at the second intermission. For the second time this season - the other was at Pittsburgh on Oct. 16 - the Caps rallied in dramatic fashion. Against the Penguins, the Caps erased a 3-0 lead. On Thursday, two goals in the final three minutes from Alexander Semin pulled out a 3-2 decision against Carolina.

“In a lot of the games we’ve been winning this year, we have been coming back,” captain Chris Clark said. “It is pretty taxing on the guys, mentally and physically, to do that. So we have to take care of it and start leading and winning when we have the lead.”

There have been plenty of positives in the season’s first dozen games. Semin has helped make up for Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring struggles. After his two-goal night Thursday, Semin was second in the league in goals and points.

Sergei Fedorov and Tomas Fleischmann have four goals each. Fedorov has proved to be a valuable jack-of-all-trades, successfully centering several different combinations and helping out on the blue line when needed. Fleischmann looks to have taken a step forward in his development and has solidified his spot in the lineup.

While Jose Theodore has struggled, Brent Johnson has been stellar in three straight starts. Maybe most important for the Caps, they haven’t put together a string of elite-level performances.

“We haven’t reached our peak yet or our highest potential, but we’re still right in the mix,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “When we do hit our stride or our peak, we are going to start doing some serious damage in this league.”

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