Jeff Halpern, the Washington Capitals’ outstanding rookie, didn’t have as much time as some of his teammates to consider the meaning of breakup day, a day all but one of the 16 NHL playoff teams go through in mostly somber fashion. Only the champions celebrate on the true final day of the season.
Halpern was running late to catch a plane to New York, then a connection flight to Finland and the world championships. Others were not so lucky and took forever to pack a bag that normally would be crammed full in a minute or so. There was little conversation, and what there was was hushed.
“I’m going to take a week off when I get back, but I can’t wait to start working out because there’s a lot of things I need to change about my body and conditioning,” Halpern said. “I’ll probably go harder than I did last summer. Once you get a taste of [life in the NHL], I don’t ever want to be in a position where that can change.”
“No, I’m not surprised,” general manager George McPhee said when told about Halpern’s remarks. “One of the really important things I’m going to take out of this season is that we were right when we put emphasis on having good character people. You try to fill your roster with people who can play on a regular basis, but they’ve got to be good people. If you have the chemistry that these people can create, it can take a team a long way.”
But he and coach Ron Wilson are realistic enough to know they also need a player or two who can put the puck in the net on something approaching a regular basis, someone who can crash the net and take advantage of rebounds like those offered up nightly by Pittsburgh goalie Ron Tugnutt as the Penguins knocked the Caps out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games.
“I suggested to them that the one thing we’ve needed for the past couple years is a little more offense, and we’ll continue to work to try and find people who can score goals,” McPhee said.
He admitted finding a quarterback for a nearly comatose power play was a priority “and it could be one player to cover both those needs for us if you’re fortunate enough to find a center who can generate offense and play the top of the power play. You can do it with one player. I just don’t know if he’s out there.”
Or whether he’s available, the team can afford him, he’s an unrestricted free agent or he even wants to come to Washington.
“We just have to find a way of burying our chances whether it’s through adding another skilled player or two, and we think we may be able to do that from within with the Kris Beechs and Michal Siveks that we expect to possibly challenge for positions on our team next year,” Wilson said. “I think to expect some guys who had career years to do even better would be unfair to them. We’ve got to find other ways to make ourselves better with some of the young people who we will be developing in the future.”
The second-seeded Caps were drubbed 7-0 by the seventh-seeded Penguins in Game 1, and the next four games were one-goal decisions. But it was like tearing pages out of history books the Caps won only one of the four one-goal games, taking advantage in only one game of the plentiful offerings left by Tugnutt.
“The difference in the series was Jaromir Jagr,” Wilson said about the NHL scoring champion. “He didn’t dominate the games the way anybody would want you to believe he dominated, but when he had a chance, it went in the net. We didn’t have that type of guy in the lineup to make a difference. We didn’t finish off the chances we created.”
And that was the part that will haunt some of the team all summer.
Two Caps and one player from the club’s farm team in Portland, Maine, departed yesterday for Finland to join the U.S. hockey team’s training camp in preparation for the world championships, which begin this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia. Left wings Mike Peluso and Steve Konowalchuk and Halpern will represent the Washington organization. Defenseman Ken Klee and forward Joe Sacco turned down invitations.
Center Andrei Nikolishin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar also have departed to join the Russian team’s training camp; defenseman Dmitri Mironov hasn’t made up his mind whether to take part in the tournament.
Wings Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik have turned down invitations from the Slovakian national team, although Bondra said he may reconsider. He said his back still was bothering him and he wanted more treatment before making a final decision.
Center Jan Bulis would have been a good bet for a spot on the Czech Republic’s entry in the tournament, but he is scheduled for surgery today to repair nerve damage on his right shoulder suffered Feb. 26 when he hit the boards in Montreal. He is not expected to be ready for contact until November.
McPhee said Bulis was the only offseason surgery anticipated by the team.