- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

To steal a phrase from former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, the Washington Capitals “are who we thought they were” as the season nears the All-Star break.

How they got here, however, was far from conventional.

The Caps entered the season with high expectations, and through 46 games those who predicted great success have been correct. Washington enters its final two games before the break - Monday on Long Island and Tuesday at Ottawa - with the second-most points in the Eastern Conference and a huge lead in the Southeast Division.

“I think we’re right on pace with where we wanted to be,” forward Matt Bradley said. “We wanted to be the top team in our division, and we want to be the top team in the whole conference, but second place means we’re at least on the right track. We’ve obviously still got some improvement to make, but I thought it was a pretty solid first half.”

Added forward Brooks Laich: “I think we’re happy that we’re No. 2 in the conference right now. If someone would have said, ‘Would you take this position?’ at the start of the year, we probably would’ve. We have a nice lead in our division. We’re playing relatively well other than last week, and we still have a lot more to give.”

The journey has been anything but smooth. The Caps have dressed 34 players this season - 35 counting Web site producer/cult hero/fill-in goaltender Brett Leonhardt - because of a wave of injuries that left them severely short-handed for nearly two months.

There were several nights when the Caps were missing at least a third of their opening night roster, and yet, save for a bad road trip to California and Minnesota in November and a three-game slide earlier this month, Washington has played like a team that deserves its place among the NHL’s elite.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of an organization where there has been so many injuries and guys getting called up and still winning - at both spots,” said 36-year-old defenseman Bryan Helmer, one of five blueliners who began the season with Hershey of the American Hockey League and have played for the Caps. “The scary part about it is not only are we still winning up here, but they’re winning in Hershey, too. It just shows how deep this organization is.”

While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom find themselves among the league leaders in scoring and Mike Green is pacing all defensemen in points a game, those three have had dry spells - Ovechkin and Backstrom had slow starts, and Green was hurt for 13 games.

Others stepped in to fill the offensive void, and the Caps have the fifth-most goals in the NHL. Alexander Semin was the league’s first star for October, carrying the offense until Ovechkin and Backstrom got going. Another key contributor has been Tomas Fleischmann, who has more goals in 37 games (15) than he had in 118 career contests (14) before this season.

“I thought I was going to have like 30 at this point,” he said. “Just kidding - no, I am really happy with the goals I have right now, but it is only because the team is also playing so good.”

The most pressing areas of concern for the Caps are centered in the defensive zone. While the Caps have proved they can score with anyone, they’ve also showed they can let anyone score with them. Yielding 2.87 goals a game, they are tied for 18th in the NHL, and the penalty killing is even worse - 23rd at 79.7 percent.

“I think sometimes in some games in the neutral zone we are very strong, and we don’t give them much space to operate,” Laich said. “But then, once we are in our own zone, that might be our weakest point right now - just the coverage and giving teams unwarranted chances.”

One remedy for the Caps’ problems on the PK could be putting themselves in that situation less frequently. The Caps have been short-handed 217 times, tied with Vancouver for fourth most in the league.

“I think we can have better success on our penalty kill,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’d like to be more consistent with that.”

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