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Young defensemen playing like pros for Capitals

by Adam Kimelman

Milan Jurcina, above, and Shaone Morrisson have been a shut-down tandem for the Capitals.
For veteran assistant coach Jay Leach, his time with the Washington Capitals is as much about teaching as it is wins and losses.

Fortunately for Leach, he’s got a number of avid students, especially on the defensive end. And while it may be just a month into the season, his defensemen are getting top marks.

Washington ended October with a 5-6 record and 10 points, currently one point out of a playoff spot. More impressively, the Caps have allowed two goals or fewer in six of their 11 games; it’s a far cry from a year ago, when they started 4-3-4, but allowed two or fewer scores just three times in their first 11.

Last season, the Caps allowed 3.35 goals per game (fifth-worst in the NHL); so far this season, they’re 14th (2.73). They’ve allowed just 30 goals this season (tied for 13th), putting them on pace to let in just 224, a far cry from the 275 they allowed a year ago.

“I think we’re just a little older, got another year under our belts together as a group,” said Shaone Morrisson. “We came into camp and realized we’re not going to make the playoffs by allowing that many goals. Our (penalty kill) has to be better. We just made a commitment from Day 1 and we just keep working at it in practice and working hard on the little things.”

Key in the resurgence has been the shut-down tandem of Morrisson and Milan Jurcina. Both former Boston Bruins farmhands, the pair was reunited last season when the Caps acquired Jurcina from the Bruins for a draft pick.

“(We) have grown together, and we realize our role on the team, playing against the top lines and limiting their chances,” said Morrisson. “We’ve adapted to that and we know what we have to do every night."

Mike Green, another member of the Caps’ defense corps, also has adapted to his role. The team’s 2004 first-round draft pick is playing first-pair minutes in his second season, and is producing offensively, as his three goals through 11 games are one more than he scored in 70 games as a rookie.

While his offense has been a plus, there still are rough spots in the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Calgary native. After a minus-10 showing last season, he’s a minus-2 this year. Despite the obvious mistakes a 22-year-old defenseman is sure to make, he’s still playing more than 17 minutes per game, up from 15 a season ago.

The same can be said about Morrisson and Jurcina. While their minutes are down slightly from last season, they’re out every night against the other team’s top lines.

“In the game you’re going to make mistakes, it’s going to happen,” said Green. “When you’re penalized for it right away and you’re not given a chance to come back from it, it’s tough. It wears on a player.”

“That’s a pretty good thing, not having to worry about, you’re not going on the ice anymore if you make a mistake, you’ll be a healthy scratch next game. That’s a good thing,” added Jurcina. “We have a great coaching staff, they’re good at talking to players. If we make a mistake, they’ll tell us and we try our best to fix it.”

Leach, said that’s the only way for players to get better, playing through their mistakes.

Mike Green is playing first-pair minutes in his second season, and producing offensively.

“How you get better in the NHL is being able to make mistakes and correcting those mistakes,” Leach said. “In our situation we’ve allowed guys to come in and play. They’ve made mistakes, but the mistakes are fewer and fewer. They feel more comfortable playing in this league. When you line up against a guy like (the Rangers’) Brendan Shanahan, you have to say; ‘I’m prepared to battle him, I’m prepared to win the battles against him,’ and that’s what we try to talk about.

“Everybody has to be held to the task, but we have to be tolerant of mistakes and kids that are learning how to play.”

It’s a welcome change for Morrisson, who spent two seasons riding the Boston-to-Providence shuttle before being traded to the Caps in March 2004 as part of the Sergei Gonchar deal. After the lockout, he earned a full-time NHL job and hasn’t let go.

“When I got into this my first year, I knew it was a rebuilding year and I knew there were lots of opportunities here and I took advantage of that,” he said.

With four years of coach Glen Hanlon and Leach instructing the young group of defensemen, this season’s showing is part of the natural growth.

“We’ve worked on stick position and body position, and these kids have been receptive to all this stuff,” Leach said. “I’ve had Mo (Morrisson) for three years now. We had Mikey come up and Mike’s improved considerably in a year. He’s still not where we want him to be, but his offensive skill is obvious. He’s going to get better. And ‘Juice’ (Jurcina) is a shut-down-type guy, a big, strong kid, 240 pounds. He’s not polished or finished, but he’s only 24. For all these guys it’s just been a maturing process.

“Many times in the last few years we weren’t quick enough or a strong enough team to play against the upper echelon teams. That led to penalties and that led to getting behind and scrambling in our zone. Now we have a little more poise and that’s because these kids have a chance to play and sort things out.”

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