Improved defense fuels Caps' resurgence

The Washington Capitals gave another demonstration of the big turnaround they have undergone in the past three weeks with their 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Friday.

The Capitals, who started 0-6, are .500 for the first time. With two third-period goals by Peter Bondra, for the first time this season, Washington came from behind in the final period to win.


This game also demonstrated that the turnaround, so evident in the won-lost column, is riding on a coordinated defensive effort.

Three weeks ago, Washington was giving up more than 30 shots a game, 5.8 goals a game and trying to stabilize its goaltending, with Rick Tabaracci and Olie Kolzig sidelined with knee injuries.


Today, the goaltending is solid, with Tabaracci, 3-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average after Friday's win, and Don Beaupre, 4-3 with a 4.43 GAA and undefeated in his past four games.

Opposing shots on goal have been under 30 for the past eight games. The Canucks were held to 25. And the goals-against average over the same eight-game period is 2.5.

"We've tightened the screws," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "Our forwards are giving the defense the support it needs to do its job."

Yesterday, after a 45-minute practice at Piney Orchard Ice Rick, the Capitals enjoyed dissecting the play that has made them one of the hottest teams in the NHL with a 7-1 record in their past eight games.

"The forwards are picking up the right guys," said defenseman Calle Johansson. "They're checking them way back up the ice, and that means we [the defensemen] can concentrate on the guy with the puck.

"We're talking more on the ice to each other. We're all telling the forwards to stay with their men. If they do that the other team can't use their trailers [trailing players] and we eliminate the puck handler."

It seems so simple, but it is far from that. It means the forwards have to have confidence in their defensemen, restrain a natural tendency to follow the puck carrier and be willing to use oral and visual communication on the ice.

"It simply took us awhile to get the confidence we needed to have in each other," said forward Kelly Miller. "Now we have it. We're used to each other, to what each of us is going to do and we're communicating better."


A perfect example occurred during the first period Friday, when several Capitals were trying to dig the puck out from along the boards in their defensive end.

Dimitri Khristich saw the situation and decided to go help. But on his way to the boards, defenseman Brian Curran put his hand on Khristich's shoulder and told him to go back to his man.

"It makes the game so much easier when you communicate," Curran said. "When a player has his back turned, he has to have the confidence that the guys behind him are doing their jobs.

"We needed Dimitri to stay on the point, and eventually the puck came back to him and he was able to clear it out of the zone. When you communicate, it keeps everyone focused."

Murray said he has seen an improvement in on-ice communication, orally and through eye contact, but he wants more.

"Playing well defensively, allows you to get a better transition game going," Murray said.


NOTES: Besides getting two goals from Bondra Friday, Washington got a goal from Alan May, his first of the season. . . . Pat Peake (ankle) is still day-to-day. Murray said he needs Peake at 100 percent to play his type of game, and, as of yesterday, Peake was still feeling twinges of pain during certain moves on the ice.