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Thursday, February 4, 2010
Like ol' Oilers, Caps will have to be 'attentive to the defensive side' of game


Thank goodness you can pause live TV. It's the kind of technological advancement that saves you from missing three goals while you go fix yourself a sandwich during a Washington Capitals game.

The Caps are filling the net like nobody's business, obviously a big reason they're riding a franchise-record 11-game winning streak into tonight's tilt at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.

More than ever, the Caps are a thrill a minute. And the architect of the team says that was the plan.

"Well, it just seemed that this was the way the league was going coming out of the lockout, that it wanted a more entertaining game and wanted more scoring," Caps GM George McPhee told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It seemed that if you were trying to design your team that way, there would be some benefits."

This team makes me reminisce a bit about Mario Lemieux's Penguins teams of the early 1990s or Wayne Gretzky's offensive machines in Edmonton during the 1980s.

The Caps lead the league with an average of 3.82 goals per game, while second-place San Jose is way back at 3.29. Washington is on pace to score 313 goals, which would be the most in the NHL in 14 years. In 1995-96, something was in the water because Super Mario and the Pens led the league with a whopping 362 goals, followed by Joe Sakic's Avalanche at 326 and Steve Yzerman's Red Wings at 325. What a season.

Of course, the Caps are in no danger of coming even close to Gretzky's boys. The Oilers of the '80s rewrote the NHL record book with a ridiculous 446 goals in 1983-84, an average of 5.575 goals per game. Those Oilers teams scored more than 400 goals in a season five times, benchmarks that have never been matched.

Still, in today's era, what the Caps are doing is impressive.

"You know what, they're an exciting team," Gretzky told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

The Great One cited Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and his history as a prolific junior player with the Toronto Marlies (Boudreau posted 165 points in 69 games in 1974-75).

"I think it goes back to when he played for George Armstrong with the Toronto Marlies," Gretzky said. "He loves that transition hockey, head-manning the puck and going to the net. It's very similar to the way the Marlies played in 1974-75 when they won the Memorial Cup. Obviously, the players are bigger and stronger these days, and the goaltenders are probably a little more athletic and they have bigger equipment, so it's tougher to score. But the actual style of play, transition and head-manning the puck is similar."

And just like Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey leading the way offensively on those Oilers teams, the Caps have their own version.

"Their top guys, Ovechkin, Semin and Green, play a hard-tempo game every night," said Gretzky. "They lead by example and pull the rest of the guys with them."

We knew a long time ago the Caps could score goals. We knew it before they took to the ice last spring for the playoffs. But the key for Washington will be to learn how to adapt its game come playoff time.

"It's a learning process," said Gretzky. "We got all the way to the Cup finals with that style. And I think the first year we lost to the Islanders (1982-83), we understood that as good as we were offensively, that ultimately we were going to have to do minimize our chances against to be successful and to go to the next level.

"I think probably, them losing to Pittsburgh last year, they probably found that out firsthand. I expect them not to change their style a whole lot come playoff time, but they'll understand they can't trade chances the whole game," Gretzky added. "They will have to be a little more attentive to the defensive side, and I think they will be because of learning from what happened to them in the second round last year. Very similar to what we learned from losing in the finals to the Islanders that year."

The learning process is ongoing. Losing a seven-game playoff series to Philadelphia in the first round two seasons ago and going seven with both the Rangers and Penguins last spring are classroom sessions the Caps have already benefitted from.

"The playoff defeats have been bitter for the players," said McPhee. "That kind of experience has to make you a better player. You're playing a high level, and you come back the next year and play at a higher level."