Defensive Caps want to get out of blocks in hurry

LANDOVER — LANDOVER -- Assuming everyone knows what general manager David Poile wishes foremost for the Washington Capitals -- hint: It skates fast, shoots true and can put the puck in the net, oh, 40-50 times a season -- we move to a secondary desire.

"A good start," said Poile without delay, looking forward to tonight's opener against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Capital Centre (7:30, HTS). "What we'd give to get going right off.


"Think back and, it seems, we're always behind the eight ball, struggling, struggling, struggling until we come on late. Last year, we cut it pretty close, not clinching a playoff spot until the 78th game of the year."

Dawdling starts have always been a trait of the franchise, even when it escaped the doldrums of expansionism and made its way into the first division of the NHL almost a decade ago. Of course, there were always reasons (excuses).


Poile thought back to last year: "A couple of injuries and losing Scott Stevens to St. Louis saw us starting out with just three NHL defensemen. It took a long while to get that situation straightened out, and then we ran into other problems."

But no problem, no holdout, no trade, nothing short of outright disaster could possibly compare with Washington not showing up with a strong defense. It has constituted anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the team since the first puck was dropped back in 1974.

Poile knows it, pointing out, "A team coming in has to feel pretty good scoring against the Capitals, knowing they're not going to get a lot of goals. But, at the same time, if we get the first goal, they know they're in tough because we generally play well out front."

That's the mark of a good defensive team, making the opposition earn everything it gets and being versatile enough to capitalize when a mistake is made.

Toward the end of having the league's answer to the Maginot Line, Washington boasts eight backliners of considerable NHL experience, seven of whom will dress for games. Poile is of the opinion that the defensive cast might be the team's best ever, which is saying something.

Chances are Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher & Co. will have to be consistently good to make up for the fact that No. 1 goalie Don Beaupre won't be on hand for a while/forever (he's a holdout). Plus, it doesn't appear as if the offense has been improved even slightly.

It's positively stupefying to realize that the two top goal scorers last season were defenseman Hatcher and the team's top defensive forward, Kelly Miller, who is threatening to join Beaupre on the sidelines over a salary dispute. It's almost a given that Dino Ciccarelli (21 goals), Mike Ridley (23), John Druce (21), Michal Pivonka (20) and Dale Hunter (16) will improve on their figures. And expected to help the cause is quick Randy Burridge, picked up in trade from Boston.

Generally speaking, the Caps are picked to finish fourth in the Patrick Division. Poile pretty much agrees the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, with additions Scott Stevens and Stephane Richer, probably have more talent. Philly and the New York Islanders are penciled in for the fifth and sixth spots in the league's most competitive (weakest?) division.


"But we all know what the Patrick is like come March," Poile said. Two seasons ago, for instance, six victories separated the division winner from the tail-ender and the Caps were able to make the playoffs despite a sub-.500 record (36-38). And, as we all know, making the playoffs is about 90 percent of the battle in the NHL.