Caps going on counterdefensive

Halpern's line key to stopping Penguins

April 12, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Jan Hrdina, one of the most feared lines in the NHL, skate on to the ice tonight at MCI Center in their Eastern Conference playoff opener, they will not be extremely happy.

The reason for their discomfort will be the three men staring back at them in Washington Capitals uniforms - Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern and Ulf Dahlen.

Konowalchuk, Halpern and Dahlen are not the most famous NHL players, but they are among the most tenacious.

The Hockey News has named them the NHL's best "shutdown line" for the way they discourage the opposing team's best offensive line.

"But they do more than that," said Capitals general manager George McPhee. "It's true they can shut down any line, but there is no other line in hockey that is considered a shutdown line and gets 60 goals in a season, and that's what they've done."

Going into tonight's opening-round game, no two commodities - stubborn defense and goal scoring - could be more important.

The No. 3-seeded Capitals are facing the No. 6 Penguins, a team many think could challenge for the Stanley Cup.

According to the numbers, there isn't much to choose between Washington and Pittsburgh.

And yet, the two teams who meet tonight couldn't be more different.

The Penguins are all glitz and glamour. The Capitals, on the other hand, are pure blood and guts, despite having last season's Vezina Trophy-winning goalie, Olie Kolzig; the NHL's fourth-best goal scorer in Peter Bondra, and top assist man Adam Oates, who tied Jagr for the honor.

Pittsburgh has Lemieux, likely the best player ever, and the one who regenerated interest in hockey all by himself by coming out of a 3 1/2 -year retirement on Dec. 27 and putting up 76 points in 43 games. And the Penguins have Jagr, whose 121 points won him his fourth straight scoring title. They also have Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang. That's a fistful of forwards Caps coach Ron Wilson calls, "five of the six best forwards in the league."

To counter, the Caps offer Konowalchuk, Halpern and Dahlen. And they will expect that line to not only neutralize Lemieux, Jagr and Hrdina, but also to score goals. It might seem to be asking for an incredible contribution, but that's not how the Caps or the Halpern-centered line see it.

"Our motto is play good defense and the offense will come," said Konowalchuk. "All three of us are similar. We're basic players. We don't do anything fancy. We just read each other real well. We feel if we can keep the puck in their end along the boards, that's easier than checking them in our end."

Halpern added: "Our line is excited to get the assignment. It's a test of where we are as a line and where the team is. ... We don't get a million chances. What we get are the dirty goals, the garbage goals. Our role all year is to chip in a goal."

By chipping in, Konowalchuk became the club's second-leading goal-scorer and Halpern its third. Dahlen is right behind, tied with newcomer Trevor Linden, at No. 5.

"What our whole team has to do is out-heart them [the Penguins] and have that desire through the whole series," said Halpern.

It's a different kind of defense against a Penguins team that could be considered the Stealth bombers of the NHL. An opponent has to know where the Penguins are on the ice every moment or risk seeing the puck blasted into the back of the net.

Lemieux, Jagr and Hrdina amassed 240 points. The Pens' line of Straka, Kovalev and Lang produced even more - 270 points. As the two head coaches jockey their lines on the ice, Halpern and company could wind up facing that second line, too.

But no matter whom they face, the Caps' top defensive line - a line Oates calls "our best line at even strength" - will face a lot of work.

"But that's what we love," said Dahlen. "We're not the most skilled guys, so we do something else. Jeff stays high and gives Kono and me the opportunity to put pressure on them and work hard. Against Mario's line, we know we can't make mistakes. We have to keep the puck in front of us, and play solid defensive hockey. That's the bottom line."

Konowalchuk's and Dahlen's forte is to dig along the boards, scrap in the corners and perhaps snap a no-look pass to Halpern for a scoring chance. It is Halpern's job, as Dahlen said, to act as the ever-vigilant third man back on defense and score when he can.

"We know Pittsburgh will crowd the front of the net, and when they do, we'll just back off to the point, look for rebounds, react and meet the challenge," Halpern said.

They're an unusual group. Dahlen, 34 and from Sweden, is the old man in the group and is experiencing a reincarnation as an NHL player. McPhee, who signed him last year, said he may be one of a kind.

"I can't think of many who have been waived by the league, returned to Europe for two years and then came back to be a major contributor with two good seasons," McPhee said.

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