"It is to improve our play enough so that, at the very least, we're one of the top eight teams that qualify for the postseason," said Washington general manager David Poile. "After 46 games, we aren't there, and where we are doesn't meet any of our expectations or goals. We need to be .500 or better the rest of the way."
At this time last season, the Capi- tals were 24-18-4 and their 52 points had them second in their division. Now, they are 20-22-4, in fifth place in the division, and ninth in the Eastern Conference rankings, where only eight make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They have had to battle from the start. They opened with a six-game losing streak and with their spirited leader, Dale Hunter, serving a 21-game suspension. Then Hunter missed another 10 games with a knee injury.
Those woes were just the beginning. Last season's leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra, broke his hand and missed 12 games, and injuries also forced team captain Kevin Hatcher and All-Star defenseman Al Iafrate to the sidelines at the same time.
All of this, and there are still 38 games to play.
"There is no question that we're below our expectations," said Capitals coach Terry Murray after a team meeting yesterday. "At the very least, I thought we'd be over .500. But last summer, when we were looking at this team, I didn't think we'd have so many injuries. . . . And yet, we're only a couple games below .500."
But then there is the other side.
Washington is two points from a playoff spot. But it is also five points from last place in the Atlantic Division. It has been up and down, recording shutouts and blowouts.
"The most frustrating thing is the inconsistency," said Murray. "I don't have any easy answers for it. We're constantly searching for the hot button to push, but the neutral-zone defenses have caused us some trouble. I'd like to find a way to beat it more quickly."
With less than a half season to go, the Capitals need the power play to step up from its 17.3 percent proficiency and 19th-place ranking, and they also need one of their goaltenders to grab the position.
They also need to get a grip on their shooting touch. Too many breakaways and centering passes go unrewarded.
And they need Hunter to regain the touch he had last season, before he was forced out of the lineup by suspension and injury.
"I'd like to see how the Rangers would do if Mark Messier was virtually out of the lineup all year," said Poile.
Finding more scoring has become an old song. Last season, the lack of forward power was covered by the high-powered defensemen, who contributed 80 goals. Now the defensemen are being more defensive, but the attack is being shut down -- here and elsewhere around the league -- by neutral-zone defenses that kill offenses at mid-ice. But Murray and Poile continue to insist their players will produce.
"After a while, you are what you become," Poile said. "This has been going on a long time, over halfway through the season. It's up to us to pick it up and do what we say we're going to do.
"We're all a little frustrated at what has and hasn't happened yet."
During the NHL All-Star weekend, a list of team salaries was handed out at an NHL Players' Association meeting. The Capitals were listed 10th, with a payroll of $14,158,825, not including bonuses and other player costs.
"Salaries are a reflection of your expectations," said Poile, acknowledging the ranking was close to being correct. "There should be a relevance between salaries and results."
So the Capitals have been tagged as underachievers.
But Murray is adamant in his disdain for the label.
"Absolutely not," Murray said. "It upsets me when I see it. It upsets me that someone wants to write it. Everything is negative.
"We have half a season left to get to a higher level. We're only two points out of the playoffs. We're getting everyone back and healthy. We're right there. We're very, very close to doing some good things."
But they're also close to justifying their other label -- that of an ordinary team.
"I don't agree with it," Poile said. "I don't want to agree with it. But if we don't play to a higher rate, I won't have too many arguments with it."
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Site: USAir Arena
Radio: WITH (1230 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Tickets: 2,200 available.
Outlook: Capitals C Mike Ridley had an X-ray on his foot after practice yesterday. Ridley's foot was hit by a puck in the closing moments of a game Jan. 9. He has continued to play but cut practice short yesterday when it swelled. "It's fine," he said after the X-ray. "I'm planning to play. I think it swelled because it was the first time back after not being in skates for four days." D Brian Curran, who has spent the past two weeks on a reconditioning assignment in Portland, was placed on waivers. If he clears at noon tomorrow, he'll be re-assigned to Portland. Boston reports RW Dan Marois (shoulder) and RW Steve Leach (knee ligaments) are out and D David Shaw (charley horse) is probable. RW Cam Neely was to play last night at Hartford. His status for tonight's game is questionable. Boston recently picked up G Vincent Riendeau (2-4 with a 4.00 GAA) from Detroit, and he is expected to play this week. Washington D Jason Woolley (abdominal muscle tear) is out.