Caps steer clear of cruise control


LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals tossed 40 shots at the goal of the Edmonton Oilers yesterday. That and the fact six of them happened to skip past goalie Ron Tugnutt during a 6-2 victory didn't appear to carry that much weight.

The focus of attention all game was what the Caps were doing when they weren't zeroing in on the Oilers' net. See, two nights before, Washington cruised into the last 15 minutes of a game against the Philadelphia Flyers with a three-goal lead and ended up losing.

And cruise is just the right word.

"We sat back against Philly," recalled defenseman Al Iafrate, who was one of the stars yesterday. "We were so far back, it was like breakout practice for them [Flyers], so by the time they got to our end they were coming at us in droves."

Even with their steadiest defenseman Rod Langway absent due to a groin injury, the Caps held Edmonton to 20 shots, a few (and the second goal) after the issue was no longer in doubt.

These are precarious times for a team that is 99 and 44/100s percent sure of finishing in second place in the Patrick Division, thus making the last half-dozen games of the season essentially meaningless.

As coach, it's Terry Murray's job to keep the gang plugging so it doesn't fall into a bunch of bad habits just in time for the playoffs. Consequently, he has to drag out the old "We have a lot of incentive to finish strong" speech almost daily.

Personal and team pride, finishing second in the division and in the entire NHL are the things constantly being cited. "And good things will occur if we give a good 60 minutes every time we go out there."

Despite a clear advantage in play in the first period, the Caps fell behind at the 15:39 mark and it was during the first intermission one of the vets pointed out the way things were going was just fine.

"We knew if we kept coming at them like we were doing, it would probably take its toll by the third period," Dino Ciccarelli noted. He missed by a period. The Caps outshot the visitors 17-4 in the middle session. They were 2-for-3 on the power play and all but out of sight with a 4-1 bulge.

But, recall, it was a three-goal advantage they squandered against the Flyers on Friday. "The players brought it up in the dressing room," Murray said. "They reminded each other that it wasn't enough to simply play defense. They had to keep forechecking with the second man jumping up to support the first guy attacking the puck carrier and so on."

Edmonton had played and won in Boston Saturday, they had been on the road for a week and the pressure took its toll. It was forced to take a couple of penalties and Ciccarelli and Dimitri Khristich were right there to capitalize.

"There's no real secret to why we've been converting on power plays lately," said Ciccarelli, whose two goals gave him six during the last four games. "The idea is to not hold on to the puck too long and to get some shots on the net and play the commotion [caused by a rebound] in front.

"The penalty killers are very aggressive these days and if you don't move the puck around, your chances of cashing in are pretty slim."

Ciccarelli's first goal, tying the game, 1-1, was the fifth straight power-play conversion for the Caps, who were 4-for-4 against Philadelphia. Khristich (33) and Peter Bondra (27) also scored on the man advantage, giving the team seven goals in its last nine tries and a sparking 23 percent success ratio for the season.

Time was when the Caps' power play was about as feeble as they come. "It certainly hasn't been an overnight thing," said Murray. "It has taken about three years to get a power play that works. It's movement, and playing and executing the system you've devised. You get in trouble sometimes when you try to be too creative."

Washington now holds an 87-53 bulge over the opposition in power-play goals, which outstrips its 25-goal advantage when playing at even strength. No doubt it's the power-play and penalty-killing casts that have the Caps at 42-25-7 and 91 points and a pretty good bet to finish second to the New York Rangers in the overall standings.

Jim Hrivnak, on for Don Beaupre, who looked bewildered in the third-period nightmare against Philly, was solid in the Caps goal, picking up his fifth victory in eight decisions. Hartford (tomorrow), Montreal (Friday) come to call this week.

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