Check it out: Caps get hot with rest and a new defense

Phil Jackman

February 22, 1993|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Right before the recent NHL All-Star break, the Washington Capitals played five games, three of them at home, and, despite playing pretty well, didn't win a one.

"That certainly taught us frustration," said Mike Ridley. "No matter what we did, it just wasn't happening."

So the team was given several days off, to clear away the cobwebs and get the guys thinking ahead, not back, before resuming with a four-game road trip.

A lot of things suggested the rough times probably would continue, especially when Washington entered the third period of the first game of the trip in Minnesota tied and being outplayed by the North Stars.

Then came a huge break. Looking to set up a teammate, Dale Hunter passed the puck from in back of the goal and it bounced into the net off the back of the Minnesota goaltender's stick. That was 37 goals and six straight wins ago after the Caps drilled the St. Louis Blues yesterday, 5-2.

"Half the battle in this game is knowing you can do it," said Ridley, who led the attack with two goals and an assist. "We were 0-3-2 before the break and knew we probably could have been 4-1. It's tough to maintain your confidence sometimes when things don't go well for a stretch."

Since that stroke of luck in Minnesota, Washington has blitzed the Blues and Los Angeles Kings twice apiece and eased by San Jose. The Caps have been getting tons of scoring opportunities as a result of instituting a slightly revamped defensive style.

"We changed our forechecking to the 1-2-2 style [as the opposing team attempts to escape its zone] instead of playing end-to-end, and we've been forcing a lot more turnovers," said Ridley. "We've been picking off pucks at their blue line because we've been on them so much."

Yesterday, for example, the action was off to the right of the St. Louis goal and the Blues seemed in control and about ready to head up ice when the puck shook loose. The sudden turn of events caught defender Murray Baron by surprise and the puck trickled between his legs to Ridley camped out at the left post. Count it.

Early in the second period with the Caps short-handed, St. Louis forward Nelson Emerson proceeded through the neutral zone when Michal Pivonka jumped him, Emerson coughed up the puck and Todd Krygier was there to scoop it up and go flying in on Blues goalie Guy Herbert.

Ridley's second goal gave Washington a 3-1 lead after two periods and the Caps stretched it to 5-1 before Brett Hull got a consolation goal in the last two minutes.

On Saturday, the Capitals rumbled out to a 6-0 lead against Los Angeles and eased to a 7-3 win.

"The 1-2-2 style [of forechecking] is nothing new or something teams haven't seen before," said Caps coach Terry Murray. "It just gives teams something else to think about and, if they don't make an adjustment, they can get hurt."

Judging from recent results, teams going against the Caps not only aren't making the right adjustment, they've been getting murdered.

So hungry and overpowering were the Caps' checkers that when St. Louis got the puck in its end, the Blues found it necessary to take penalty after penalty in hopes of slowing down the assault. And the Capitals ended up cashing in on three of 10 power-play chances.

One of these involved textbook maneuvering by three Washington players, Ridley ending up as the goal scorer following plays by Dimitri Khristich and Dale Hunter. Stick-handling out on the wing, Khristich was looking to put a pass across the St. Louis crease, but there was a logjam of players in front.

He drew back his stick, double-clutched as he dropped the blade on the puck and the defense began to react to the first movement of the stick. Suddenly, there was an opening no more than six inches wide through which he could get the puck to Ridley. Meanwhile, Hunter was doing his job, drawing the usual clearing bump from a defenseman. Ridley's goal ended up being the equivalent of a gimme -- a six-inch putt.

From frustration to elation in a half-dozen games and a short rest to get the mind off hockey and recharge the batteries. "I don't know if all this ties in with the break at the All-Star Game," said Murray, "but you have to think the time off has had something to do with it."

Then again, it's probably best not to think and overanalyze it. "We're just playing smarter these days," said Ridley. "All we have to do is continue to do the little things, be patient and jump on opportunities."

A hot goalie -- Don Beaupre is 5-0 lately -- helps, too.

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