Caps say break won't put brakes on streak

NHL's hottest team, back in playoff position, welcomed time to rest

February 08, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig sat in front of his locker one recent evening. He had answered wave after wave of questions about his team's resurgence in the NHL. And, like the rest of his teammates, he had talked about "playing the system," "playing as a team," "playing great hockey."

Now, he was asked why.

"I don't know about the rest of the guys," Kolzig said, "but I was tired of being considered mediocre. God knows I was tired of reading it and hearing it after a year like last year. We've challenged ourselves to be better."

Since the new year, the Capitals are 12-2-1, including a non-losing streak that reached 11 before it ended in Pittsburgh last Tuesday. Because of the streak, the Caps went into this past weekend's All-Star break as the hottest team in the league.

They have clawed into sixth place, two points behind fifth-place Ottawa in the Eastern Conference, with an overall record of 25-18-8. They also have one of the better home records, 16-4-6, having bounced back from that loss at Pittsburgh with a team-record-tying eighth straight home victory.

When things are going well, hockey players usually want to keep playing. They don't look forward to a four-day break. But the Capitals had no choice this past weekend. The All-Star Game was at hand.

In fact, the Capitals said the timing was just about right. They've been playing every other day for two weeks and seven of their next eight games are on the road. A little rest seemed in order.

"Our focus for the second half will be on being consistent," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "With the breathing room we have, we can play relaxed. And that's what we need. If we feel tight and a need to win, we make mistakes."

Though there are those who say the Capitals' turnaround started earlier, most players point to a team meeting after a 3-1 loss in Atlanta on Jan. 6 as the day things really started to change.

After that game, Wilson said, "I was ready to nuke the entire team." But he didn't lash into them. "There comes a time when the players have to hold each other accountable."

It turned out that Kolzig and others felt the same way. They closed the locker-room door, pointed fingers and named names.

"People said some things," said defenseman Joe Reekie. "With the talent in our [locker] room, we were disappointed in ourselves."

The result, though Kolzig calls it coincidence, has been to establish the Capitals as a Stanley Cup contender. And there is little mystery as to how and why they've turned the corner.

The Capitals are playing hockey like a swarm of wasps. They seem to be everywhere in a defensive scheme that puts two defensemen and usually the center back playing defense and forcing play to the outside. It takes away most of the opponents' quality offensive chances and leaves no room to maneuver without getting stung.

It also generates frustration, which, in turn, creates mistakes that the Capitals have been able to turn into goals.

"It comes back to us that teams are saying we give them no room, saying they hate to play us," Wilson said. "When you hear that, you know you're on to something."

The No. 1 reason the Capitals are able to play well, besides their mental commitment, is they are healthy. At this point last season, players collectively had missed 291 games. This season, the number stands at 72, and 50 of those belong to one player, Trevor Halverson, who is day-to-day with a concussion.

With health come other benefits:

The Capitals, younger and faster, have better depth.

All four lines are established and scoring, taking pressure off Peter Bondra and Adam Oates.

Kolzig, who was named NHL Player of the Month for January, is playing the best and most consistent hockey of his career.

Sergei Gonchar, whose 13 goals tie him for the NHL lead among defensemen, is having what Wilson said could be a Norris Trophy candidate year, though Gonchar said with a shrug: "I got my luck back, and I got my partner, Joe Reekie, back from injury. When Joe came back, I got better. I am nothing without my partner. But it's not just me. The whole team is playing better."

Left wing Chris Simon was brought here four years ago with the idea that he could be an offensive threat as well as an enforcer. Now, with his shoulder healthy and playing on a line with team captain Oates, his 15 goals tie Bondra for the team lead.

Right wing Ulf Dahlen (nine goals, 12 assists) is showing his ability to create offense with center Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik, two of Washington's youngest players who have matured over the past two seasons -- as has defenseman Brendan Witt.

Two years ago, the Capitals went to the Stanley Cup finals, and many, including Wilson, expected them to return last season. Wilson said he believed he could get a 10 percent better performance from everyone coming off a Cup finals year, but the Caps finished 31-45-6 and didn't make the playoffs.

"I made a mistake," Wilson said. "I misjudged the age of my team. I misjudged the physical toll losing in the finals took. I failed to realize we had a lot of tired, old guys at the end. It was my mistake to push 10 percent harder. I never thought that was the best year of their careers. It wasn't fair for me to ask for 10 percent more. We maxed out and then some."

When Wilson talks about this team, the comparisons he draws are to the one of two years ago. But even those comparisons aren't really valid. Two years ago, the Capitals were seen as overachievers. This time, they simply seem to be living up to their ability.

"But we don't want to get thinking too high of ourselves," Kolzig said. "We can get humbled real quick."

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