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Caps face road challenge

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

The Washington Capitals were underdogs Saturday night heading into Toronto but left town with a 3-2 victory and a lot of confidence for a banged-up club.

The Caps (16-12-7) will be even bigger underdogs tonight facing the healthy Sabres (25-7-3) in Buffalo as the NHL resumes after a two-day holiday break. But Washington has won four road games in a row, the longest successful road streak for the club since February to March 2001, when it ran off five straight road wins.

Buffalo has the best record in the Eastern Conference after coming within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals last season. The Sabres were surprised in their most recent outing, a 3-2 overtime loss Saturday night to dreadful St. Louis, but had their opening night roster intact for the first time in 25 games. Smooth-skating defenseman Henrik Tallinder returned after missing 24 games with a broken arm.

The Caps, meanwhile, are hurting. They will be in much the same manpower situation they were in when they played the Maple Leafs. They have four players out long term and a fifth, Shaone Morrisonn, one of their top two defensemen, sidelined with the flu. Morrisonn has missed two games already, and there was no indication yesterday that an extra two days off would get him ready.

Out long term are right wing Richard Zednik (abdominal surgery), left wing Matt Bradley (hand surgery) and defensemen John Erskine and Bryan Muir, both of whom have broken bones in their feet. Muir blocked a shot at practice Wednesday, while Erskine did the same thing in successive games, with one shot or the other delivering the disabling blow.

Washington has three players up from its Hershey farm team in the American Hockey League -- left wing Alexander Giroux and defensemen Jeff Schultz and Lawrence Nycholat. Schultz is a rookie who will be playing in just his third NHL game; Nycholat is 27 and at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds always has been thought to be too small to play full time in the NHL, but both men have done an adequate job since being pressed into service.

Much of Washington's success away from Verizon Center (8-4-4 this season) is because of goalies Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson. Kolzig is 5-2-1 away from home, while Johnson is 3-2-3 with a combined save percentage above .930.

Kolzig has been the Caps' No. 1 goaltender since opening night of the 1997-98 season when he replaced an injured Bill Ranford at the end of the first period in Toronto. His win in Toronto on Saturday night moved him into a tie for 32nd place on the all-time wins list with the well-traveled Felix Potvin at 266.

Kolzig's next start will be his 629th in the NHL, all with the Caps. That will move him into a third-place tie with Turk Broda of Toronto for most games played by a goaltender who spent his career with the same team. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur (846) and former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter (666) are the top two.

Note -- The Caps played Buffalo 21 times from 1978 to 1984 and failed to win once, earning just four ties. Scotty Bowman, the NHL's all-time wins leader who was behind the bench in Montreal, Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Detroit, coached the Sabres from 1979 to 1987.