As Bondra finds his touch, Capitals get a needed push

March 28, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Peter Bondra's teammates call him "Banzai" because he looks like a speeding locomotive as his legs power him down the ice for a head-on confrontation with an opposing goalie.

These days it is a wonderful sight for the Washington Capitals, who have seen him break out of a slump that seemed to stretch back to his 1992-93 All-Star season.

"He's hot," said Washington captain Dale Hunter. "He has 18 goals, and that's not just because he has regained his scoring touch. I think he's improved as a player as a whole. He's driving the net, playing the game hard and sniping. I'm glad to see it.

"It's a game of inches . . . and Peter's on a roll. Give him the puck. That's what I do."

Bondra smiles at what Hunter says. He has been smiling a lot lately.

"I've seen so many times my breakaway stopped by the goalie," he said. "It is much more fun now. A month ago, it wasn't fun. When you're not scoring and the team's not winning, you don't have much to talk about with your teammates. But now, the whole team is playing better and I have confidence.

"A month ago, when I was going to the net I would have a pretty good idea about what to do, but it was like my head was going faster than I was. Now, I have found my touch and it seems like I have more time and every time I score I get more relaxed."

He has a five-game scoring streak. His 11 goals this month tie the Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Lindros for tops in the NHL.

His short-handed goal in Washington's 4-3 overtime loss to Hartford on Sunday was his third of the season, and before yesterday's games, that tied him for first in that NHL category.

It's a pretty heady place for Bondra, who began the season worried about where he stood in the last year of his Capitals contract.

Now, not only has he snapped out of one of the most frustrating periods in his professional life, he has done it by being more than just a goal-scorer.

Besides playing his regular shift and having a position on the power play, he has become a regular part of the Capitals' penalty-killing unit.

"I had to change," Bondra said yesterday, while enjoying a day off with his wife Luba and their two children. "I came to camp with a different attitude because I wasn't sure of my position. In training camp, I didn't have a line. It was like, 'OK, there is Bondra, put him on the fourth line.' And, for a while, I was on the fourth line with 'Chief' [Craig Berube] and Dave Poulin. And then I got a few shifts with Joe [Juneau] or Huntsy [Hunter] as a replacement player.

"And all that time, I just tried to play hard. It was very important to me to play hard to secure my position on the team."

Even when the Capitals were 3-10-5, Bondra was on the plus side of the play.

More than once, Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld would point to the 6-foot, 200-pound right wing as his most productive player, even though countless scoring chances were turning into countless misses.

"Now I am hot and scoring," Bondra said. "But it is the whole team that is hot, and my job is made easier with good passes from Huntsy and Pivo [Michal Pivonka] and Dima [Dimitri Khristich]."

With Bondra's re-emergence has come the rebirth of an old line. Bondra, Pivonka and Khristich had been the Capitals' best line two seasons ago, when they combined for 225 points. Now they're clicking again, combining for 33 points in 12 games.

The hard work is turning into goals. Bondra leads the team with 18 and is tied for eighth in the NHL with Philadelphia's John LeClair.

"He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, scoring goals," said Pivonka, who has five goals and 10 assists this month. "Don't say anything. Everyone is leaving him alone right now. He's doing what he always did. The only difference is he's putting the pucks into the net. He always had the chances, he always was there, but he needed five chances to get one, now he needs three chances, and that's the difference."

Schoenfeld says Bondra came ready to play this season. He says Bondra has finished more checks in the team's 31 games this season than he did all of last season.

"He's giving us everything we wanted," said Schoenfeld. "It's everything he can deliver because of the skill and speed that he has. So when he exploits the speed and uses it to his advantage, by either beating defensemen wide and going to the net, or getting himself open or going in to throw a big hit to create a turnover, he produces well offensively. In times past, he didn't do it consistently."

In his fifth NHL season, Bondra said he always has known he should finish checks, but it has not been something he always could do.

"I've known it, but I wasn't strong enough," he said. "So, I worked in the off-season and during the lockout to build my upper-body strength, not so that I could kill someone, but so that when someone hit me I could take the hit without falling to my knees."

NOTE: The Capitals have lent goalie Rick Tabaracci to the Chicago Wolves of the International Hockey League for two games this week. Tabaracci, 1-3-2 with a 1.33 goals-against average, has not played since pulling a hamstring in Philadelphia on Feb. 28. The likelihood of getting game work with the Capitals is nearly nonexistent as long as rookie Jim Carey continues to play well. Tabaracci is to return to Washington on Sunday in time for the team's 3 p.m. game with Boston.

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