Caps embrace underdog role

January 21, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Washington Capitals open their NHL season here tonight against the Whalers with a solid defense, but facing questions about their goaltending, their goal scoring and their overall strength. Three scenes from the past two days of practice tell the story.

* Scene 1: Goaltender Don Beaupre, a 14-year NHL veteran who had been with the Capitals for six seasons, had been traded for less than an hour, when 10-game NHL veteran goalie Olie Kolzig moved his equipment and name tag into Beaupre's seat in the Washington locker room.

"His spot didn't even have a chance to cool down," said Kolzig, with a smile. "But I've been waiting four years for this chance. His seat feels big, but this is a growth opportunity for me and I have to take it. I haven't proved anything in the NHL yet. This is my chance."

Tonight, Kolzig not only will have Beaupre's seat in the locker room, but his favorite spot on the ice -- right in front of the goal.

As this 48-game season begins, goaltending is the Capitals' biggest question mark.

With Beaupre, the franchise's all-time winningest goalie, traded to Ottawa for a fifth-round draft choice, it is up to 24-year-old Kolzig and 26-year-old Rick Tabaracci, the scheduled starter Tuesday in Quebec, to answer the call.

Washington general manager David Poile says the decision to go with unproven goalies is risky.

"But we want to be more than competitive," he said. "It's a gamble, an educated gamble. It's time to see if they can take us where we've never been."

* Scene 2: The biggest player at practice yesterday wore jersey No. 24 and came off the ice to face a deluge of autograph and interview requests. Mark Tinordi, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman, faced up to it with a $10.85 million smile.

After acquiring Tinordi from Dallas in trade for holdout Kevin Hatcher, the Capitals reached agreement on a four-year extension on Tinordi's contract that will pay him $2.17 million a year over the five-year deal.

"They've been generous with me and I'm grateful," said Tinordi. "Now it's my job to live up to the other end of it, and I'm eager to do it. I think I'll be able to play the game a little more aggressively here."

Tinordi answers the question of who will stand up and make a big play at the blue line. With last year's big men, Al Iafrate and Hatcher, gone, the Capitals needed another force to go along with stay-at-home defenseman Joe Reekie.

Adding Tinordi makes for a solid Capitals' defense, anchored by Sylvain Cote, Calle Johansson, Jim Johnson and Reekie and supported by John Slaney and rookie Ken Klee.

"Mark makes us a little more steady and confident," said Cote. "He plays big, physical and he fits in with the style we now have here."

In a little less than a year, Jim Schoenfeld, who became the Caps' coach a year ago Friday, has completely revamped his team.

Many of the players are the same, but for the first time in at least three years, the team is built around solid defensemen playing defense. The forwards, led by Joe Juneau on a line with Dimitri Khristich and Rob Pearson and the youthful Pat Peake, Steve Konowalchuk and Keith Jones, will be depended upon to score goals.

And everyone is to play the blue-collar style Schoenfeld used to get this team to pull off a playoff qualifying run and first-round postseason upset of Pittsburgh.

"They may be the same guys, but they're growing," said Schoenfeld. "They've changed. Pat Peake is no longer a young guy trying to find his way. He's a reliable hockey player. Others are at different places in their lives, ready to do great things.

"And I think we struck gold with Tinordi. He's a highly skilled, gritty competitor who makes it difficult for opposing forwards to come in our zone and that makes him a goaltender's friend."

* Scene 3: Before the Capitals arrived for practice yesterday morning, their head coach walked into the locker room, picked up a grease pencil and wrote a message on the note board.

"Hockey 'experts' have picked us out of the playoffs," Schoenfeld wrote. "Remember . . . . the experts also said: man can't fly, the Earth is flat, the Titanic is unsinkable. Never limit yourself by other people's expectations."

Coming into the locker room, left wing Craig Berube looked at the board and grinned.

"Nobody knows nothing," he said. "The 'experts' are just people who wanted to play hockey and couldn't. They're just guys who want to be in our skates."

Tonight, the Caps begin answering the question: how good are they?

Even before their goaltending became a major wait-and-see proposition, their goal-scoring capabilities were suspect. With goals on a steady decline since hitting a record high of 330 in 1991-92, their forwards are eyed with skepticism.

Last season, Peter Bondra, Michal Pivonka, Kelly Miller, Khristich and Dave Poulin all did less than expected. Though all of them performed better in the playoffs, it took a furious rush to manage a 39-35-10 record and a postseason berth.

Can this team do better?

"We've got a chance to win the Cup," said Schoenfeld, who makes an art of positive thinking. "The guy who gets in in eighth place is going to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. That's how good this conference is. We know it is going to be extremely difficult. It just means we have to work hard to achieve it."

NOTES: Four players have new jersey numbers: Tinordi No. 24; Johnson No. 4; Klee No. 2 and Pearson No. 25. . . . Besides the Juneau and Peake lines, Schoenfeld will open the season with a third line of Dale Hunter, Pivonka and Miller and a fourth of Poulin, Berube and Bondra. . . . Asked who Tinordi would be paired with, Schoenfeld joked, "I think Juneau, I like the speed combination." On hearing that, Tinordi laughed, "With that speed combination, Joe will have to leave a lot of drop passes."

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