Playoff forecast for Caps still hazy

With five games left, tight postseason race has team scrambling

Hockey

April 05, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

With just five games left in the NHL season, the Washington Capitals are on a precipice. Will they fall out of the playoff picture, or continue their climb into the postseason?

"I'd like to know that, too," said the Caps' leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra. "We have a chance, but it will be tough. I like the way we're playing now. Hopefully, I won't mess something up by saying so."

Only a few short weeks ago, there weren't many outside the Capitals' locker room who believed the team would reach this point, where it has a shot at the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and a slim chance at the Southeast Division title. The Capitals are two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the last spot and four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the division lead.

It has been a long, bumpy ride for the Capitals, who began the season with the highest expectations. With right wing Jaromir Jagr - the player labeled the best in the world - on their roster, a Stanley Cup run was fully anticipated.

Instead, it has been a season of struggle. Jagr adjusting to a new system. Injuries coming in never-ending waves, taking out defenseman Calle Johansson and center Jeff Halpern for the season, left wing Steve Konowalchuk for most of it, right wing Ulf Dalhen, Bondra, even Jagr for some of it. All forcing coach Ron Wilson to continually shuffle lines.

And then, when it at last appeared that Jagr and center Adam Oates had developed a strong, trusting relationship on the ice, Oates, the league leader in assists, was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on March 19.

Even Jagr, perhaps the most optimistic hockey player in Washington, had a momentary doubt.

"I've always thought this was a good enough team to win every game ... " Jagr said. "When management traded Adam, you wonder what are they thinking? And I didn't know who I would play with. There were no other centers here, and it's tough. You're on the first line, and you are always facing the other team's best checking line. It would be nice to have a centerman."

For Washington, the season could have been over right there.

"We could have said, `[Forget] it,' and packed it in," said co-captain Brendan Witt. "But everyone wants to get to the dance. We looked around and said, `Well, maybe everyone has given up on us, but we're still in it.' That's what we said to each other before the game in Denver. We saw we had 12 games left, and we said, `Let's go win our games and see what happens.' And look where we are now. We're in the hunt."

The Capitals are 7-1 since March 19 when they shut out the Colorado Avalanche. They are on a season-high four-game winning streak, and, if they keep winning and get a little help elsewhere, they just might pull off one of the best late charges in their history.

Why, with three weeks left in the season, did the Capitals suddenly meld into a cohesive unit? The trade of Oates is certainly part of it - the move gave the team a rallying point. The return of Konowalchuk, who does so much of the hard work along the boards and in the crease, 18 games ago is another part. Since his return, the Caps have gone 11-6-1 and climbed above .500 (34-32-10-1) for the first time since Oct. 24.

The injuries to so many defensemen, which have allowed rookies such as Jean-Francois Fortin and Nolan Yonkman to add youth and speed to a veteran unit is another factor. And right wing Dainius Zubrus, shifted to center on Jagr's line, has been brilliant. Over the past eight games, he has 11 points.

"It's a great sign to see guys picking it up," said goalie Olie Kolzig. "You wonder why didn't we do this in November, December and January? But it matters most now."

"You can't do anything about the past," Dahlen said. "We are where we are. You can't say, `What if?' We just have to take care of business now."

After the Oates trade, Jagr promised the Caps would not fold. Yesterday, Jagr was still making bold remarks.

"I still think we're going to finish third in the conference [by winning the division]," he said. "I believe we will win our last five games. People may laugh. OK, maybe we win none. But I believe we will win all five."

Remaining games

Capitals: Home (3) - Ottawa, Chicago, New Jersey; Away (2) - New York Islanders, Buffalo Hurricanes: Home (2) - Atlanta, Tampa Bay; Away (3) - Islanders, Florida, Atlanta Canadiens: Home (3) - Columbus, Ottawa, Buffalo; Away (2) - Ottawa, New Jersey

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