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The D Holds the Key

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
By virtually every statistical measure, the 2006-07 Washington Capitals are much improved over the 2005-06 Caps. But this season’s Caps have shown only a shade of improvement in perhaps the most important area of all: goals against.

Washington currently sits five points outside the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, and the final Stanley Cup playoff berth. If the Caps have any hope of slipping into that eighth spot, they’ll need to show dramatic improvement in the goals against column over the season’s final 32 games.

alt Caps coach Glen Hanlon was recently asked what area of his team’s performance would require the most improvement after the All-Star break. He did not hesitate.

“Goals against,” he declared. “That’s the one area that’s totally out of whack with a team that’s talking about making the playoffs.”

Hanlon is right. The 10 worst teams in goals against last season all missed the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s worth noting that the 2005-06 playoff team with the worst regular season goals against average was the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. Anything can happen if you can get in.

The 2005-06 Canes allowed 3.15 goals per game during the regular season. In the postseason, Carolina shaved that figure to 2.4 goals per game, third best among the 16 playoff participants.

The Capitals finished last season with the 27th best won-lost record of the 30 NHL teams. Washington was 23rd in goals scored (230), 29th in goals against (300), 26th in power play success rate (14.7%) and 28th in penalty killing success rate (78.9%).

All of those major indicators are trending upward this season. With 32 games remaining on the 2006-07 schedule, the Caps are seventh in the NHL in goals scored (158), they’re 26th in goals against (172), 12th in power play success (17.6%), and 19th in penalty killing (82.2%).

Obviously, the goals against category is the only one that has not shown a significant improvement over last season. Goaltending has not been a problem. Washington’s save pct. has gone from .896 in 2005-06 to .901 this season. The Caps are right in the middle of the NHL pack in that department.

What the Capitals are lacking is consistency from their defensive corps. In a recent five-game stretch, Washington allowed an average of just 27 shots on goal. It allowed only seven even-strength goals in those games, and went 3-2 during that span. That pace of three wins out of every five games is the pace the team set for itself as its goal for the season, a pace that would likely put the Caps into the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Capitals, the next five games told a completely different story. Washington permitted an average of 41 shots per game in those five contests, allowing 19 even strength goals (one was an empty-netter) in the process. Predictably, the Cap went 1-4 in those five games. They cannot afford such stretches if they hope to remain on the perimeter of the playoff chase.

alt Eleven different defensemen have suited up for the Caps this season, 12 if you count Ben Clymer, who shifted back to a wing position in early November. Nine of those 11 are still with the team, but three (John Erskine, Bryan Muir and Brian Pothier) are currently on injured reserve. Barring a trade, this group of nine is going to have to play its most consistent stretch of hockey over the next 32 games if the Caps are to have a remote chance at securing a playoff spot.

There is no substitute for experience, and the Caps have a group of defensemen who are decidedly short in that department.

“That is the big difference between just trying to make it at the NHL level and being a consistently good defenseman at the NHL level,” says Caps netminder Olie Kolzig. “Goaltending and defense take the longest to develop, and that’s the reason why. You need to develop consistency. The majority of guys who come up for their first NHL game are so pumped up on adrenaline and nervousness that they just simplify their game and play within their means. And usually that is when they are the most successful. When they’ve been around a little longer, they become a little bit more comfortable and they’ve got it figured out. I’m in my 17th year pro and I still get butterflies before games and I’m still worried about not performing my best.

“I think if you ask any good player they’ll tell you they still feel those butterflies and they still prepare the same way; they don’t take it for granted. Not to say that these guys did, but there is a big difference between coming up for two or three games and doing it for 10-15 years. When those guys get it figured out, we’ll have a great core here that’s for sure.”

That might be true. During the 1980s, Washington’s roster featured a slew of defensemen who were chosen in the first round of NHL drafts. Rick Green, Robert Picard, Darren Veitch, Scott Stevens and Kevin Hatcher all went on to solid NHL careers after being first-round Washington picks.

While Stevens and Hatcher were longtime backline staples on the Caps teams that were perennially in the playoffs for a decade and a half, Green helped fetch Rod Langway and (indirectly) Larry Murphy on the trade market. The Caps routinely featured one of the league’s best two-way defense corps throughout the 1980s and 1990s. First-rounders Sergei Gonchar (1992) and Brendan Witt (1993) helped the team carry its 1980s success into the next decade.

After a long fallow period in which few quality defensemen came into the organization via any means (draft, trade, waivers, or free agency). the Caps have seemingly put together what could be the nucleus of Washington’s next run of playoff hockey teams. Three of the team’s current defensemen (Steve Eminger, Jeff Schultz and Mike Green) were Caps first-rounders, and another (Shaone Morrisonn) is a first-rounder acquired from Boston in 2004.

Washington had never taken two defensemen in the first round until 2004 (Schultz and Green), but it did so again in the following draft (Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley).

alt As Kolzig mentioned, it will take some time for these players to develop into reliable NHL defensemen. How quickly they’re able to improve will determine how Washington finishes the 2006-07 season.

When the Caps take to the ice for their final game of January on Tuesday in Ottawa, the six defensemen likely to dress for the game will bring in a combined total of 791 career NHL regular season games. The three blueliners on injured reserve account for another 660 NHL games worth of experience. Compare that to the 2,927 games of NHL experience the six Caps defensemen took into the 2002-03 playoffs, the last time the Caps played postseason hockey.

All nine of Washington’s current defensemen have had their ups and downs this season. They’ve all shown themselves capable of skating 20 minutes a night, and they’ve all had stretches of games where they’ve been very good and other stretches where they’ve been very mediocre. To a man, they know what’s at stake over the final 32 games, and they know they’ve got a great opportunity to shine.

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