The NHL season is four games old and the Washington Capitals have proven at least two things: they are very capable of giving opposing teams quality scoring chances and, as center Mike Ridley says, "We've proven we're not going to score like we did last year," when the Caps were the second-highest scoring team in the league.
The Capitals are in a rut. They've lost three straight by the same 4-2 margin. And the similarity doesn't stop there. The Caps' nightly inability to protect the puck has resulted in relentless counter-attacks.
"We've given up a lot of quality scoring chances," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "It's happening right down below the tops of the circles in front of our own net. That's what I consider a high-percentage scoring shot, and we're giving up too many of them right now."
In preparation for tonight's 8:05 game at the Capital Centre against the Ottawa Senators, Murray has held a team meeting to talk defense and put his team through basic defensive drills on the ice during practice at Piney Orchard.
He is leaving nothing to chance. The Senators are an expansion team, but they have the same 1-3 record as the Caps.
"The last couple years, we scored when we created chances," said Ridley. "But a lot of the guys we have out [injured] right now, they're a lot of our offense. It's something we have to play through and the way to play through it is to tighten up defensively. When you get down early, like we did, 3-0, in New Jersey, you start taking stupid chances trying to get back in it and you give them 3-on-1 breaks. If we play smart defensively from the beginning, our good defense will create chances at the other end."
After Monday's loss at New Jersey, Murray said the Caps must return to defensive hockey. But he said yesterday that such a change does not mean a return to the Caps' old style, when they lived off defense.
"This isn't even a change from what we were emphasizing the last half of last season," Murray said. "When we took a look at the halfway mark, we realized if we wanted to improve and play better hockey, we were going to have to play better defense. When we lost in the playoffs, that was the message I was sending to the players and the media, that if we wanted to be a better hockey team, it has to be . . . better on the defensive side."
Without forwards Randy Burridge, Dimitri Khristich and Michal Pivonka, who are all injured, the Caps have yet to discover a go-to guy. Their leading goal scorer is defenseman Calle Johansson, who has three goals. Pat Elynuik, who was brought in as a scorer just before the season started, got his first goal Monday, and Bob Carpenter has just one assist.
"We've got guys who can score," said Ridley, who has one goal and one assist. "But we don't have guys who can carry the team, like a [Mario] Lemieux, [Kevin] Stevens and [Jaromir] Jagr at Pittsburgh and [Mark] Messier and [Brian] Leetch in New York. We've all got to play together and play well defensively."
Ridley said every player is trying to score on every shift and that very effort has weakened the Caps.
"Guys around our net are taking off early," said Ridley. "Like Terry always says, 'There are a lot of good plays made before a goal is scored.' It's especially true for us. We don't have the one guy who can score by carrying the puck through two guys and make an all-star play to get us the easy-type goals."
The Caps are getting good scoring chances, but the team's shooting hasn't been accurate. Yesterday, practice ran 15 minutes beyond the scheduled 90, while players practiced puck control and shooting.
"If we go out and play the game and execute everything else, we'll get some bounces and get an ugly goal sometimes that can get a line or an individual's confidence up and get some guys going," Murray said.
One of the guys Murray hopes will get going tonight is Reggie Savage. Savage proved himself in preseason, producing four XTC goals in four games, but disappointed Murray in his first two regular-season games.
"Coach sat me out for two games to make me want to work harder, to make me hungrier," Savage said. "It's part of being a pro, working hard every day. . . . I know I have to put out daily. I got the message."
Murray said he talked to Savage about "keeping his feet moving all the time." Murray, of course, would like to get his whole team moving.
"It has been proven time and again in this league that hard work will beat talent any time the talent doesn't work," Murray said. "We've all got to go into this game with our work boots on."
NOTE: The Caps have called up defenseman Shawn Anderson from the Skipjacks. Anderson played in three games and scored one goal. The Caps made the move because of the loss of defenseman Jason Woolley for three to four weeks with a broken left wrist.