Capitals, minus stars, add basics

January 13, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

The Washington Capitals, searching for consistency most of the first half of this season, seem to have found it the past 18 days. The strange thing is that consistency has come while their two star defensemen, Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate, have been either out of the lineup or limited by injury.

In their absence, Washington has become a basic, sound defensive team. The forwards have been responsible, the defensemen have, for the most part, stayed back and concentrated on defense.

It is a style that is the reverse of last season, when Hatcher, Iafrate, Sylvain Cote and Calle Johansson set an NHL record for defensemen with at least 20 goals on the same team.

But it has worked. Aside from an 8-2 loss in Boston on Jan. 2, when back-to-back games, the flu and injuries rendered them lethargic, the Capitals have been in every game to the last shot.

They've gone 4-2-2 since Hatcher broke his hand Dec. 26 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since spraining his knee Dec. 21 in Philadelphia, Iafrate has played -- at less than full strength -- in four of those games.

Hatcher may return to the lineup for the first time since this conservative style has clicked when the New Jersey Devils visit the USAir Arena tomorrow night. Iafrate is also near 100 percent.

All of which leads one to wonder if the Capitals are better without those two.

"Absolutely not," Capitals coach Terry Murray said.

But yesterday, Hatcher did say that the team has played well without them.

"The team has been playing a simpler, more fundamental game," Hatcher said. "And since Al has been back, he's been playing a simpler, more fundamental game. It's all fundamentals, and it has made us a lot more consistent.

"And I hope when Al and I are both in the lineup, we'll continue to play this style. We're not going to score six goals all the time in these games. The defenses are all lined up at the blue lines, and we're not getting the kind of chances we had last year."

The only problem not solved during Hatcher's absence is an old one -- consistent scoring. Washington still has to dig and scratch for every goal, while teams such as Toronto, with its two top-10 scorers Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour, somehow seem able to take advantage of other team's mistakes to score.

That the Capitals have not only maintained their play, but improved on it has not necessarily made general manager David Poile more open to a trade to acquire more scoring.

"Whenever you're making a trade, you have to weigh it," Poile said. "I'm not trading Kevin Hatcher today. My hope is that we will continue to play good defense and take advantage of the offensive advantages we get from having Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate in the lineup."

Poile, however, didn't want to get carried away and say anyone on the team is "untouchable."

"Wayne Gretzky wasn't untouchable," he said. "You never say never."

Veteran center Dave Poulin noted a lot of teams change their style with some success when their top players are injured.

"You're never better without your best guys," Poulin said. "Is Buffalo better because Pat LaFontaine is out and their record has improved? You adjust. You find a game plan, a little different style of play that works for you. We've done that, but when these guys get back, they can play very well within that style. They'll do it. Al already has been doing it."

In fact, the question may be more for the team as a whole. Will it continue to play the patient, fundamental game or get caught up in the wide-open game Hatcher and Iafrate can provide?

"We're all waiting for Hatch to get back," Johansson said. "But everyone has to keep doing the same job they've been doing."

Murray is happy not seeing end-to-end rushes and the counter-attacks they can cause. He is happy with an overall style that emphasizes defense first. And he says Hatcher and Iafrate will have no problem fitting their games into the plan.

But now that Hatcher and Iafrate are coming back, might everyone relax?

"I hope it doesn't happen," Murray said. "I feel we really need to continue to tighten the screws defensively, play consistently . . . and remember not to force it."

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