- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

Progress. That’s what the Washington Capitals have wanted while still in the early stages of Dale Hunter’s regime as coach. Defense was supposed to turn into offensive chances, so patience was a necessary virtue at the start.

But then the Caps started to show some steps forward in convincing victories against the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, as the power play and five-on-five offense woke up and defensive zone coverage came together. A 5-1 loss earlier this week to the Philadelphia Flyers was a thud — a “half-step back” in the words of veteran forward Mike Knuble.

“It just shows you we got a little bit of work to do and shows the guys in here that we still have some work to do and some things to tighten up,” he said. “It’s a good little reality check to think you’re making progress and then you just kind of say, ‘Maybe we have some more work to do.’ And that’s how we have to look at it, moving forward.”

Moving forward, from Thursday night’s game at the Winnipeg Jets and then Saturday night’s visit to the Colorado Avalanche, the Caps are trying to identify and solve the problems that have led to a season’s worth of struggles.

For center Brooks Laich, it’s not an adjustment to Hunter’s 1-2-2 trap, his defensive system or his forecheck.

“The mistakes are obvious, and it’s not system play. It’s not a flawed system,” he said. “It’s not a system flaw or structure flaw. It’s the execution of it.”

Through 30 games and two coaches, there have been few nights where the execution has been top-notch. Lately, the issue has been a lack of offensive punch and too many goals - and scoring chances - given up.

“I think the ice is tilted one way, it seems like,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Every single time we get out there, we’re in our own zone. I don’t know exactly what it is.”

And it’s cyclical problem. By spending so much time getting worn out in the defensive zone, the Caps are prone to making more mistakes.

They also get fewer opportunities to score.

“We’ve got to get better in our own end. We’re spending too much time there; it’s hurting our offense,” Hunter said. “We have to have separation from the puck, and separate the guy from the puck, and get the puck moving. They were pinching a lot on our wingers, and our wingers got to be better getting it out.”

But when the Caps are the ones getting fatigued and making errors, it’s hard to see tangible results.

Players have acknowledged that losing and getting scored on saps confidence, which can be difficult to recapture if goals and some accomplishment aren’t present. The idea then becomes to go back to the very basic thing of working harder than opponents.

“I want to see our work ethic through the roof,” Laich said. “That’s what I want to see. I want to see desire. People want to point fingers at systems, and this and that. But you can’t execute anything without work ethic. I want to see our work ethic skyrocket, see everybody hustle, see everybody compete, shoot the puck, attack nets, be hard to play against.”

Lately, the Caps haven’t been hard to play against - a problem players started mentioning before coach Bruce Boudreau was fired. Reverting back to that kind of game is the opposite of progress.

But goaltender Michal Neuvirth reiterated Wednesday the confidence that this team can turn the season around and win a lot of games. Everyone agrees that could take time.

“We still have a little bit of ways to go. We want to be a top team in the league, which I think we can,” Knuble said. “We’ve just got to be better and rise to the challenge.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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