The Washington Capitals received some bad news on the eve of the opening game of the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight (7:35) against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
The Capitals, already a defenseman short because of Mikahil Tatarinov's torn hamstring muscle, will be without Al Iafrate for at least for the first two games of the Patrick Division series because of a combination of the flu and emotional problems.
Iafrate, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in mid-January, missed the last two games of the regular season with the flu, but he failed to recover.
"We couldn't understand why he wasn't getting over the flu," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "So we sent him to a second doctor. The new doctor came up with the emotional problem diagnosis."
"We don't want to go beyond saying Iafrate has emotional problems," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "We want to protect the player. I can assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol is a factor. The most optimistic time for his return would be this weekend [Sunday] when we play at the Capital Centre."
Iafrate's condition raised concern about alcohol because another player acquired from Toronto, John Kordic, is suspended for the rest of the season because of alcohol problems.
Iafrate, who went through a long and bitter divorce earlier in the season when he was with Toronto, was unavailable for comment.
To replace Iafrate, the Capitals yesterday recalled defenseman Kent Paynter from the Baltimore Skipjacks and returned defenseman Mark Ferner to that team. Murray also said that Neil Sheehy, out the entire season with a broken ankle and then back surgery, could be a possibility as a replacement for Iafrate.
"Sheehy practiced well and he will see the doctor on Thursday," Murray said. "Sheehy has made a remarkable recovery and if he gets the doctor's OK, he looms a possibility.
"We'll just have to overcome the injuries, like we've been doing all season. Injuries are part of the game and you can't afford to dwell on them. Last year we lost Kevin Hatcher and Dino Ciccarelli in the playoffs, and we managed. We'll have to do it again."
Murray said he likes the feeling on his team entering the playoffs against the Rangers, a team that won the season series, 4-2-1, but lost to the Capitals, four games to one, in last year's Patrick Division final.
"We played well in the month of March and we have good momentum entering the playoffs," said Murray. "We've been getting excellent goaltending, good defense, our penalty killing is superior and we've been getting adequate offense. Our power play has to improve. And we need to get more people involved in the scoring."
Murray said he hasn't decided whom to start in goal tonight. "Right now I'm sitting on the fence, so to speak. [Don] Beaupre has been very hot, but [Mike] Liut has played very well also. I'll probably decide just before game time."
The teams will play the second game of the series Friday, also in New York, and then move to the Capital Centre for games Sunday and Tuesday.