LANDOVER -- Given a choice between a team with an attacking style as opposed to one that falls back and plays safety-first hockey, most players and practically all fans would opt for the former. It makes for exciting games.
There comes a time, however, when the damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead routine leaves a team with generous portions of egg on the old kisser. The Washington Capitals confirmed this suspicion last night.
During the first 30 minutes of the game against the Minnesota North Stars, the Caps played like something the cat dragged in. Their deficit was three goals and, for the next 20 minutes, the Cap Centre was unabashed delirium as they battled back fiercely to a 3-3 tie.
Unfortunately, so honed in on Minny's jugular were the Caps, they could not handle even the mildest of counter attacks and thus fell, 5-3.
Chances are coach Terry Murray never dreamed the combination of a potent offense and a stingy defense were mutually exclusive components, especially considering the Caps have always been such solid defenders. "But," he noted, "I've been saying since our 20th game that our defense just hasn't been getting the job done. The way teams are just walking in [and scoring] is killing us."
Culprits were plentiful as Washington was taking up position well in arrears of the defending Stanley Cup final loser, just now arriving at the .500 level (18-18-3). Ulf Dahlen skated away from Al Iafrate to score, Dave Gagner scored on a play that saw Kevin Hatcher make a bad decision and it was as if Marc Bureau were invisible in front of the net so wide open was he on the Stars' third goal.
While it's true the Caps have too many defensemen thinking offensively at the present time, Murray wasn't about to lay all the blame on his backliners. He outlined how some forwards, upon )) losing the puck, have been known to shirk their responsibilities.
"When you lose the puck," he reminded, "you go pick somebody up and work toward getting the puck out of our zone."
First Michal Pivonka, then John Druce, got the Caps back to within a goal after two periods by constantly buzzing the Minnesota goal. The top moment of the evening arrived when Dimitri Khristich, awarded a penalty shot when Stars defenseman Chris Dahlquist closed his glove around the puck as it lay in the crease, a no-no, converted same.
Talk about drama. There was a long delay as the referee looked to assess blame and goalie Darcy Wakaluk prepared. Amidst a mighty roar released by the 14,862 in attendance, Khristich swooped in and placed the disc high and hard over Wakaluk's left shoulder.
Clearly, the momentum belonged to the home team. Clearly, it was time for Minnesota coach Bob Gainey to arouse his lads. "He started yelling for us to go back at them, to forecheck and not to go back into a shell as we've been known to do," said Gagner.
During the stretch that saw Washington climb back into a tie, the Caps outshot the Stars 15-5. The teams nearly wore the ice down to the cement floor underneath in the Minnesota end before Gagner led a charge out with just more than eight minutes remaining.
Mark Tinordi wrestled the puck away from Dale Hunter without too much trouble and sent it across to the right circle to his linemate. Gagner hammered it past Don Beaupre for his second score. And he wasn't done yet.
"The fourth goal was a big one," said Dave, "but I really enjoyed that last one." The Caps were back at it peppering away at a pace that saw them finish with a 35-23 shots-on-goal advantage when Gagner gained possession in the neutral zone.
He moved deliberately into the Caps' zone and didn't look to have a play, especially with two defenders, Hatcher and Sylvan Cote about to put the mug on him. As they did, he deftly flipped a blind backhand pass to trailer Mike Craig and he went the last 40 feet to beat Beaupre mano-a-mano with 70 seconds remaining as the Caps goalie waited impatiently to leave and give his team a sixth attacker.
Suddenly, there was no need for the strategy and the Caps had a loss to go with two ties over the weekend. When you're breezing along with a 26-14-3 record and tied atop the Patrick Division, no wins over a three-game stretch constitutes a mild slump.
"If we're going to be a really good team, we're going to have to stop giving up so many easy goals," said Murray. He pointed out that before the 20th game when the defense started to slip, the Caps were giving up three goals per game. Since then the average has shot up half a goal a game, and over the last eight, it's up to 4.5 goals a game.
The Caps practice twice before Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings come to town Friday night (7:35). It's likely the team will be informed of these numbers. The games are exciting, though.