Caps' drive near top mends their owner's broken heart

Leonsis' emotional outcry sparks 5-week turnaround

January 10, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

There was no big team meeting. No finger-pointing. No big speech from the coach. But over the past five weeks, the Washington Capitals have methodically turned their season around and positioned themselves near the top of the Southeast Division just in time to start the second-half drive to the playoffs.

The turning point came after back-to-back losses at Atlanta and Pittsburgh, Dec. 1 and 3. The usually confident owner, Ted Leonsis, said his team was unorganized and dispassionate. There had been moments earlier in the season when he had joked, "I want my money back!" after lopsided losses at home, but nothing like the emotional outpouring in which he also said his heart was broken and he would be looking to make changes if the situation didn't improve.

"It's hard to listen to your owner say the things he said," said Caps defenseman Calle Johansson. "We were guilty as a team. Ted spends a lot of money on us. Every night is important because we get paid so well.

"I think everyone realized within themselves that each of us had to go the extra inch and work that little bit harder. It was a silent coming together. It doesn't turn in a shift or two. It's an accumulation over time. We started to play better defense and made it harder for other teams to score."

In the past month, the Caps have cut into their goals-against average. For two months, they allowed three goals per game, but since coach Bruce Cassidy changed his system to the more familiar defense-first philosophy four weeks ago, the Caps have been giving up less than two, allowing 21 goals in the past 11 games.

"We're playing smarter and making a commitment to our own end," said goalie Olie Kolzig, 14-11-3 with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. "It's defense first, and when you play like that, you give yourself a chance to win."

From being 12th among 15 teams in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 3, the Caps climbed to seventh heading into last night. They are battling three teams - the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning - for the Southeast Division lead. They face two of them this weekend: tonight at Carolina and tomorrow at home against Florida.

But Washington's run to an 18-16-5-2 record was not achieved with a mighty winning streak. Instead, the Capitals have inched their way, point-by-point, game-by-game toward the top. When they finally got a five-day break in the schedule this week, they could look back and see a 10-game points streak.

Still, only half of those games were wins. The other five included three ties and two overtime losses.

"But when we started the season, we set 90 points as our goal," Cassidy said. "We're only two games off that right now. So, we have to find a way to make up those two games."

The Capitals have plenty of areas to improve. Their power play, among the three best in the league last season, ranks 24th with a 14.7 percent success rate. Their penalty killing is also among the worst (28th) though it got better in December.

And the men who should be leading the offensive charge aren't just yet. Jaromir Jagr (ankle strain) has seven points in his past 13 games, Peter Bondra (nagging injuries early and the flu last week) has seven goals in his past 20 games and Robert Lang has three points in his past 14 games.

In the meantime, the checking line of Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern and Mike Grier, playing that familiar Caps brand of in-your-face defense and scoring consistent, opportunistic goals, has anchored the Washington attack.

Michael Nylander (10 goals, 27 assists for a team-leading 37 points) and a surging Sergei Gonchar (eight goals, 23 assists) have helped carry the offense.

"There was a lot of talk about all the changes that would make us better," said veteran defenseman Ken Klee. "But it takes a while for chemistry to take hold. We had the new coaches and seven to nine new guys. That's almost half a team. It takes time to figure out where they fit into the team concept.

"The main thing about us right now is that we've been playing like a team for a month or so and not just relying on our best guys. That's what you have to have. You look at Detroit. Why do so many great players want to go there to play knowing they'll get fewer minutes? Because the team wins, not the individuals."

It was one of the first things Jagr said when he came to Washington last season. He said he had enough scoring championships (five) and personal awards. What he wanted was another Stanley Cup.

Now, he has 18 goals and 18 assists. McPhee points out Jagr is on pace for close to 40 goals and 70 to 80 points. Not bad for a lot of top forwards, but not what the NHL has come to expect from Jagr. Cassidy also said Jagr is on a line that plays against the best defenders.

"And no disrespect to [Jagr's left wings] Ivan [Ciernik] or Kip [Miller], but they're not real first-line NHL players," said Cassidy. "If he had [Alexei] Kovalev or [Martin] Straka there, he would have better numbers. But Jags has never complained about that. He doesn't mind playing with younger guys. He's a class act in that respect."

For his part, Jagr is philosophical.

"I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't," he said. "What's better, I score a lot of goals and we lose or the way it is? I'd rather take the team victory than my personal story. So, it could be worse. What I hope is that maybe I can help the team be a little better in the second half."

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