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Capitals' Schoenfeld thinks defense again


LANDOVER -- It was a strange situation to say the least. "One instant," said Jim Schoenfeld, "it was an hour before the game and I was walking around saying, 'Nice to meet you,' and the next I was saying, 'Let's get ready to play.' "

But the new coach of the Washington Capitals knew of the team all right, probably better than some of the people who have been calling the shots for the club the last few years.

"When I was playing [13 seasons] and coaching [three seasons, two teams], the personnel was different, but the Caps were known as hard workers. They played good defense and didn't give you anything."

It remained that way for years as the team progressed from league dregs to playoff perennials. In their heyday, given a goal lead by mid-game, the Caps could hold it for a week. Until postseason, that is.

"Then a couple of years ago," continued Schoenfeld, "the team tried to open it up a little bit. The 'run and gun' style's OK. Detroit's good at it; Pittsburgh with [Mario] Lemieux makes it work. Buffalo tried to do it with [Pat] LaFontaine and [Alexander] Mogilny, but when LaFontaine went down, they went back."

Does the style fit the Capitals?

"No, I don't think the talent here is suited to that style. I'm sorry, that's the way it is," answered the coach.

So, since progressing from paid spectator in a 7-2 loss in Buffalo last week to man running one practice and becoming coach, Schoenfeld has his troops thinking defense again.

It has meant a 4-2 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia and a 6-3 triumph over Detroit at home Sunday. The Red Wings, who average 4.5 goals per game, entered on short and long streaks of 5-1, 11-2 and 16-3.

First thing Schoenfeld noticed about how the Caps have been playing of late, hitting midseason with a pedestrian 19-19-4 mark, then losing five of their next six, was the "bad reads by both the forwards and defensemen when the other team came down ice. We've been giving up the blue line unnecessarily. That's the sign of a team playing without confidence, backing down like that."

Sunday, the Caps stood their ground and then some. The Red Wings, who unload 35 shots a game, managed only eight in the second period when Washington was forging a 4-2 lead and just four in the last 20 minutes when the Caps seemed to have a dozen guys forcing loose pucks in the neutral zone.

"This isn't the first time we've won a couple of games in a row and scored some goals," said Mike Ridley. "It was the first time in a while the defense was standing up more and the guys [forwards] were helping out. It was the defense that opened things up for us to counter a lot and drive on the net. It's no good unless we keep it going, though."

The Caps have conference foes Montreal at home Friday, Tampa Bay Saturday. It's not imperative that they start performing as something better than a .500 team immediately, but why wait?

"We've not only got to get back to playing and winning low-scoring games," said Schoenfeld, "we've got to start playing up to potential. We do that and we'll win a lot of games. That's my job, helping the players be as good as they can be."

A pretty good test of the club's mettle occurred early in the third period when Randy Burridge was sent packing for high sticking and drawing blood and Detroit scored to make it 4-3 just 35 seconds into the five-minute penalty.

"That was a tough situation, having to kill the major, and what I saw on the bench was as impressive as what was going on out on the ice," said the coach. "The guys there were into it, yelling and encouraging.

"We went with six defensemen and four lines mostly and that was important because it's the first step in getting some of the personnel back to what they used to be. We're a long way from where we want to be, but it has to start somewhere."

And maybe the trip already is under way in goal. After beating Philly, Don Beaupre was back between the pipes less than 24 hours later and loving every minute of it.

"I'm better the more I play and this is the first chance I've had to do it [play on back-to-back days] this year," he said. "I hope it continues."

While it's great to have two goalies -- Beaupre (13-9-2) and Rick Tabaracci (9-12-2) have been pretty even all year -- when the postseason comes, teams almost always go with one. Under Schoenfeld, Beaupre has taken the early lead in that race.

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