Capitals on rise as early lessons start to sink in


These are glorious times for the Washington Capitals. Yesterday, in preparation for tonight's game against the Whalers in Hartford, the team had a slam-bang practice at Piney Orchard.

"I pushed them," coach Terry Murray said evilly. "I pushed them hard. But you can do that when things are going well, and they'll leave practice with smiles on their faces. Look at 'em." Grins all around.

With the Caps on a virtual blitzkrieg, in which they've lost just once in their past dozen games (10-1-1), the club started working on new techniques.

"We inserted some new stuff on breaking out of the zone together with the usual one-on-one and two-on-two drills down low [in front of the net]," said the coach.

"Repetition is the mother of skill, so you just keep going over the fundamentals. One thing you can't do is have 15 different drills in a practice. That way, nothing gets done. There's a delicate balance there."

In retrospect, Murray concedes that perhaps he attempted to load too much information on the troops in training camp, and maybe it had an adverse effect on the team as it started slowly. Slow? These guys were in reverse for weeks, sporting records that read 1-3, 3-7 and 7-12.

"Last season, we began putting stuff in both offensively and defensively at about the 40-game mark. That worked out well," Murray continued. "In camp and during the exhibitions, we had new and young players and the team wasn't really set. We probably overloaded some of the guys."

Simultaneous with their relaxed stroll through the first 20 games on the NHL schedule, a performance that justified their taking up residence in the Patrick Division cellar, the Caps had injuries to two key offensive operatives, Michal Pivonka and Dimitri Khristich. It is not incidental that since they returned to the lineup three weeks ago, Washington has resembled the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s.

"Early on," said the coach, "our defensemen were stepping up on the play too much and getting caught. When we hit the skids [losing four straight games twice], the defense wasn't getting nearly enough support from the forwards and it showed in the number of odd-man advantages we were giving. Then they went in the opposite direction and wouldn't step up at all."

The situation began to straighten out when Washington, on the road, converted three of five power-play opportunities and won in Quebec. A couple of nights later, the Caps were 2-for-4 on man-advantage opportunities and whipped the Boston Bruins. Then the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins fell. Success was breeding confidence all over the place.

During the past 12 games and while they have climbed from 20th to eighth overall in the NHL standings, the Caps have hit on 22 of 66 power plays. Meanwhile, the penalty killers have wiped out all but eight of 56 attempts by the opposition. A 14-goal difference turned in by the special teams during the course of a dozen games gives a team almost an insurmountable advantage.

"The return of Pivonka and Khristich has helped out so much because it has raised the skill level both ways, on the power play and killing off penalties," said Murray. "Just as important, though, has been the squads working together so well. Special teams can't really be successful if anyone's going to have a selfish attitude.

"You encourage puck movement on the power play, and, if the defense stops what we're trying to do, get it back out to the blue line. In other words, get the puck where it will do the most good. That's what we've been doing. It's a compliment to all the guys, the way they've been playing so unselfishly."

The one-for-all, all-for-one attitude is no more apparent than among the defensemen, where Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher, Calle Johansson and Sylvain Cote are having banner seasons. They rank third, fifth, seventh and eighth in team scoring, respectively, while not allowing their propensity to leap up on the attack to trivialize their defensive responsibilities.

Helping the whole thing come together have been Don Beaupre and Jim Hrivnak, the guys in goal who are no longer thought of as first- and second-string but 1 and 1A. Beaupre has won five straight after a ruinous 2-10 start, and Hrivnak is among the league leaders with his 10-3 mark and 2.80 goals-against average. Good goaltending comes with solid defense and the forwards living up to their checking duties.

Veteran Rod Langway returned from knee and shoulder surgery to skate Monday and reported no ill effects from the injured areas while sitting out yesterday.

After tonight, the Caps are home to Hartford Friday, then go to Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo before Christmas. The Bruins are the only team with a winning record, so it's reasonable to expect the points to continue to pile up.

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