Caps' morale in question as they shoot for rebound

Last season's wounds may not have healed

October 11, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, said he was once told life has only three acts. It is the third act - redemption and comeback - that interests Leonsis as his NHL team plays its first game of the season tonight.

"I've been living the second act," said Leonsis, describing the plot this way: The new kid comes out of nowhere to score success in the first act, gets overconfident and too big for his britches and takes a tumble into reality in Act 2.

"We're back at square one, where we have to make the playoffs," said the owner. "It will be a terrible disappointment if we don't."

The Capitals, who went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, the year before Leonsis bought the team, missed the playoffs last season by one game. The team that beat them, the Southeast Division champion Carolina Hurricanes, reached the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Detroit Red Wings.

Last season's finish was a debilitating blow to the team's ego, so much so that the Capitals' new coach, Bruce Cassidy, points to the players' lack of confidence as the biggest hurdle in meeting Leonsis' expectations.

"I don't think there is any doubt about the talent here," said Cassidy, whose team opens its season tonight at MCI Center against the Nashville Predators. "There is a fine, familiar nucleus of players from that team that went to the Cup Finals five years ago. But when I go in the locker room, I sense we're a little lacking in confidence.

"I think there are some guys in the room who don't know how good they can be or how good the team can be. We're not a real vocal group, and that's OK, but I'd like them to be a little more cocky, a little more abrasive.

"I'd like us to have a little bit of a swagger."

The Capitals have players in their lineup who should know how to swagger: superstar Jaromir Jagr, who has led the NHL in scoring five times and came over from Pittsburgh last season; Peter Bondra, the Caps' longtime leading goal scorer; Olie Kolzig, who won the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league in 2000; Calle Johansson, the team's defensive glue; Steve Konowalchuk, the rugged defensive forward.

All have had careers that lend themselves to self-confidence.

When Jagr arrived last season, he said it would take a while to settle in, but he wasn't afraid to predict championships. Even as the long season of injury and disappointment wound down and the Capitals became more and more desperate, Jagr stood up for his team and its chances.

But going into this season, even he is hesitant to voice too much optimism.

"No predictions," he said with a soft smile. And then, after a moment's hesitation, he added: "All I can say is, if we don't make the playoffs, I predict I won't be here next season."

Said Kolzig: "We all realized last year we were probably the biggest underachievers in the league.

"Good teams, real teams find a way out of the hole. We tried to do that after the Olympic break, but we learned what we did in October mattered. We learned we can't afford to get off to a bad start."

After the season, coach Ron Wilson was jettisoned, and so were a string of fringe players. In their places are Cassidy, 37, in his first season as an NHL coach, and a group of younger, more talented players, including defenseman Steve Eminger, 18, the first-round draft choice who has made tonight's opening roster.

General manager George McPhee has also added center Robert Lang, who is working on a line with Bondra, and rugged right wing Mike Grier, who is expected to find a place alongside Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern on the Caps' most aggressive checking line.

Tuesday, McPhee reached a contract agreement with the Caps' top center, free agent Dainius Zubrus, who is expected to be on ice tonight between Jagr and fellow linemate Chris Simon.

With just free-agent forward Andrei Nikolishin still unsigned, the Capitals have managed to strengthen their roster.

Cassidy is installing a philosophy that gives his highly skilled forwards "some rope," and is working with his defensemen to be more accountable to each other. The accountability, however, is team-wide.

Freedom, Cassidy said, comes with responsibility. If his forwards want to create on offense, they also have to be willing to forecheck and play defense.

"I like giving some freedom as long as when the score is 1-1, we're not turning the puck over," Cassidy said.

"The go-to guys have not changed," he said, rattling off a string of familiar names. "I am trying to give the forwards more freedom with the forecheck and trying to play more as a team, taking the individual out of it and making it more a team concept."

Kolzig said he believes this team is closer as a group than any he has played with previously - despite the squad's ethnic diversity.

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