LANDOVER -- Over the years, the power play of the Washington Capitals has mostly functioned on about four cylinders while the top teams were driving V-8s.
As they completed the first half of their 18th season yesterday, however, the Caps carried the most potent man-advantage numbers in the NHL, a statistic the New York Islanders obviously thought was bogus.
During the course of an 8-5 loss to Washington, before an audience taking a break from bowl-watching for a few hours, the Isles put the Caps on the power play four times. They scored every time, giving the club a success ratio bordering on the outrageous: 25 percent.
How outrageous? Nearly 30 percent of the Caps' league-leading total of 179 goals have come as the result of the opposition skating a man short. It's obviously hockey's version of voodoo economics.
The Caps not only reached the midpoint of the 80-game slate back in sole possession of first place in the Patrick Division, their 26-13-1 record boosted them to within one point of their best half-season ever, 1985-86 when they were 25-11-4.
Your assessment please, Terry Murray. "We want to be better when we're skating 5-on-5," said the coach, adhering to the coaching creed that every cloud doesn't necessarily contain a silver lining.
"Naturally, we're more than pleased with the success of our special teams since we put so much emphasis on the power playand penalty killing," he continued. "At the same time, we don't want to rely on our special teams too much. All teams clamp down [defensively] late in the season and the playoffs."
Imagine the Caps thinking ahead to games a couple of months hence. Historically, they've been a team loitering around .500 through much of the season, often running the risk of not making the playoffs, until their traditional strong run in March.
"Now," said Murray, "we can get back to concentrating on the defensive part of our game."
It's a reasonable bet that the Caps can accomplish that objective while maintaining most of the ability to score since the offense has been spread among so many people.
The Euro Connection of Dimitri Khristich, Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka was sensational at the start of the season and, when it started drawing much more attention from the opposition, the Dale Hunter-Randy Burridge-Dino Ciccarelli line took off. Factor in the Mike Ridley-Kelly Miller-Todd Krygier shift and it adds up to a half-dozen players who figure to have 30-plus goal seasons and a few more who will probably reach 20.
At the same time, defensemen Kevin Hatcher and Calle Jahansson already have nine goals apiece and Sylvain Cote and Iafrate are right behind with eight. Contrast this to last season when Washington's team leaders in the goal department were Miller, a defensive specialist, and Hatcher, from the back line, with 24 each.
"I don't think there's any doubt the team has been successful because of team play," said the coach. This may sound like something even a chicken could figure out. Still,it's amazing how often it is lost on players involved in a team game.
The Caps, who have handled the Islanders with consummate ease the last two seasons, winning nine of the last 10 meetings, were up a goal and pressing midway through the first period when Alan May and Nick Kypeos were whistled off for being a tad too aggressive. It's the height of ill-advised play to put your team down two men when taking a deep breath and counting to 10 is the alternative.
This and a later sequence also giving the Islanders a 5-on-3 advantage went beyond dumb to scandalous. The team handled the second penalty kill with aplomb, though, and this provided the impetus to escape a situation that had disaster written all over it.
It was less than a week ago that the Caps somehow squandered a 6-1 lead and lost to the New York Rangers, 8-6. Murray admits to suffering "flashbacks" when a 6-2 Washington advantage after two periods suddenly read 6-5 just four minutes into the last period.
Mike Ridley's first of two goals eased the tension slightly and the situation was well in hand when the Islanders could muster just one weak shot Don Beaupre's way in the Capitals' net with a two-man advantage over two minutes.
It was the ideal situation for a coach: a win, but certainly enough bloops, blunders and bleeps to complain about today during practice.
No doubt Murray's opening remarks at the Piney Orchard Arena today went something like this: "Attention please. I have it on the highest authority that playing defense is not an offense punishable by banishment to the San Jose Sharks."
The Vancouver Canucks come to town tomorrow (7:35 p.m.). They zapped the Caps, 3-1, back in October.