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Caps' tumble turning into a free fall

LANDOVER — LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals are to be commended. Not only have they arrived as a team whose capabilities place them in the lower half of the 26-team NHL, they just might be in the lower half of the lower half.

That's quite a tumble from a decade ago when the Caps had back-to-back-to-back seasons of 101, 101 and 107 points and, in 1985-86, compiled a mark of 50-23-7.

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Just as it was a brutally long and arduous assignment for the club to escape the ooze of being an expansion team to attain respectability, then contention, the retreat has been similar and almost imperceptible. Better that the falling off had been more pronounced and rapid. It might have tripped the warning alarm much earlier.

The numbers don't lie. Following their listless 2-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils in a matinee yesterday, the Caps' record stands at 3-9-2. The resulting eight points leave them ahead of just Ottawa in the Eastern Conference of the NHL and, remember, the Senators have only been in business for two seasons.

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In the Capitals' first two campaigns, their records read 8-67-5 and 11-59-10.

While it's true Washington has made the playoffs each of the last 12 seasons and many view this as a mark of excellence, expansions helped out and there have been some pretty shoddy seasons of late: won/lost records of 39-35, 37-36 and 36-38 in three of the past five years.

General decay, it seems, has been the case for about four years, although starring performances by individuals or cooperative efforts have covered up rust spots.

For instance, there was the season Don Beaupre won 29 games in net during the regular season. Or the year the team had nine players score more than 20 goals while having a better record on the road than at home.

Yesterday's setback was typical of a Caps game for longer than anyone in team management will admit, at least out loud. The Devils, who also have trouble scoring goals, got on the board within the first three minutes, Tom Chorske doing the damage, and immediately jumped into its defensive shell.

"After both the first and second periods," said Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, "I was telling the guys, 'Hey, we gotta get back to skating, to getting some offense going.' "

In actuality, they didn't, and they didn't have to. One goal was as good as 100.

While Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld cited "some good opportunities to score," reading between the words you could tell he wasn't in any way satisfied with the effort: "In a one-shot game like this one, you look to your skill players, your so-called 'big' players, to come through."

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But the skill players, the players of tomorrow, young lions Joe Juneau, Peter Bondra, Jason Allison, Pat Peake, Dimitri Khristich, Steve Konowalchuk, were nowhere to be seen.

Between them they were only able to put six shots on New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, who was made to look like Turk Broda (Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender of the '40s).

"[Olaf] Kolzig played another good game [in goal] for us and we do nothing for him," the coach said. "Some of our passes were ill-advised in that we were passing up good shots to pass."

This was especially true when, early in the second period, the Caps went on the power play and shortly thereafter were handed a two-man advantage. Over the course of those minutes, the home team could force the goalie to make a save just twice and one of them was easy.

"They did a good job of covering up rebounds, and checking our guys," the coach said.

Then, too, the Caps appear to have a cast of easily-checked players these days. Several moves that can already be judged as big-time losing propositions are a major part of the cause.

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Imagine sending a fine two-way player like Mike Ridley, the team's top pointman last year, away for a guy, Rob Pearson, who is still searching for the potential he carried when he was the second player overall in the 1989 draft.

Then there's Randy Burridge, an All-Star a couple of seasons ago, who was dispatched for next to nothing, a fourth-round pick. And dependable veteran Todd Krygier, not to mention goaltender Don Beaupre, who was sent away for a fifth-round draft choice.

Unless they're doing a great job of playing possum, the Capitals are fully deserving of their lowly standing and the faithful are noticing. A little more than 10,000 showed up on a holiday to be anesthetized.



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