LANDOVER -- No one needs to tell the Washington Capitals they are in big trouble. And it's not just because they're down 3-1 heading into Game 5 of their NHL playoff series against the New York Islanders at the Capital Centre tonight.
In 10 previous Stanley Cup playoff campaigns, the Caps haven't established any records for scintillating play during April; still, most of the time they have been a rock-solid defensive outfit, and that always comes in handy come crunch time.
Borrowing on the cliche that defense wins championships, the ability to hold on to what it had was a trait Washington possessed in abundance, making for many interesting (if not winning) series against superior forces like the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers years ago and the Pittsburgh Penguins recently.
The fact these days is the Caps not only don't play sparkling defense anymore; they're probably no better than average in the watered-down NHL. Time was when they would go into a slump and the goals would rain past their goalies. A couple of stern looks from the bench and a serious practice or two and, voila, the team's backliners would be back on track.
No longer does such a transformation seem possible, however. With the start of the season and a couple of minor changes in the rules, it became fashionable for defensemen to "jump up" or "pinch in" when a team was on the attack. The Caps had some defensemen so good at it, scoring goals and pressuring in the offensive end, they began figuring things would take care of themselves in the defensive end.
It's the old Frankenstein story, on ice. Dr. Frankenstein creates a mon
ster and, in due time, the big fellow turns on him and brings down the castle and everyone in it.
Perhaps afraid of injuring themselves, missing time and thus not adding to their record totals both individually and as a corps, certain defensemen seemed to have taken to a finessing style instead of laying their biggest-in-the-league bodies on the opposition.
It's like Penguins coach Scotty Bowman said late in the regular season, "The Caps have defensemen who play great offense and forwards who play great defense."
While this is true most of the time, this inside-out style obviously doesn't work too well in the playoffs. While it's true the Caps are a lucky bounce or two away from being tied up in the series or even ahead, the reality is hockey is a game of freak occurrences, weird bounces, questionable officiating, unexpected heroes and luck, with all of it forgotten once the final result is in.
In the last two of three consecutive overtime losses to the Isles, Washington has blown comfortable leads in the late going. Last Thursday, the advantage was two goals with 12 minutes remaining and one goal inside the last 45 seconds. Saturday, after building a 3-0 cushion during the first 26 minutes, the Caps were blanked in the last hour of playing time as the Islanders were scoring four times.
About all coach Terry Murray has been able to come up with while watching his gang get swallowed up in the stretch is: "If you have a 3-1 lead with seven minutes left in the game, there's no way it should end up the way it did." Not once, but twice.
"I don't have any answers right now," the coach continued. There's not much he can do except remind such confirmed free-lancers such as Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate that their prime responsibility is to stop the other team from scoring.
It's not unusual for the usually larger Caps to wear a team down, producing more zip in the late going. Clearly, though, it has been the Islanders who have had an auxiliary tank to go to when needed. In each of the last two games, it has been mighty mite Ray Ferraro who has put the puck in the net in overtime for New York, and he probably should be credited with the goal that beat the Caps after nearly 95 minutes of play last Tuesday, also.
The way Ferraro explains it: "A broken leg kept me out for a couple of months, so, actually, I've only played about 40 games and should be in midseason form. After every game, I've been just about wiped out, at the point of being over-tired. But I've been catching several naps during the day, and I feel fine."
Maybe that's what the Caps have been needing for the last week: pre-game naps, not lengthy snoozes during the last half of third periods and during overtimes.