- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

With nine games left in the regular season, all things are still possible for the Capitals even, amazingly, the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. New Jersey, which appeared to be a lock for the top spot back in February, is in a 5-10-2 free fall with three road games coming up. The Devils are having a devil of a time as evidenced by their 5-0 home loss to Carolina the other night, their second 5-0 defeat in three weeks.

"It's been a month that we've been playing crappy hockey," Scott Stevens said after the no-show against the Hurricanes. "There's no question it's time to start building, and we're not. We're slumping."

And there's only one way New Jersey is going to pull out of it, Bobby Holik said. "We have to tell each other we stink."

All this self-doubt is music to the Capitals' ears. They're only five points behind the Devils with a game in hand heading into tonight's meeting with the Rangers in New York. Ask Olie Kolzig if the Caps can catch New Jersey and he says, "Oh, yeah. It's too bad we don't have any games against them [down the stretch]. But the way they're playing right now and the way we're playing, it's possible. No doubt."

Ron Wilson is as puzzled by the Devils' slide as the rest of the NHL. "Maybe somewhere in there they decided: OK, we've got a big lead. We'll rest a little bit. We won't push it," he says. "Because in years past they've pushed, pushed, pushed and then failed in the playoffs. The thing is, once it starts slipping away, it's hard to get it back. You can rest for a week, but … I don't think they're resting now. In fact, I think they're panicking a little bit."

It would be hard not to if they've been following the exploits of the Capitals. The Caps are riding their hottest streak in 14 years and are looking more and more like the team to beat in the East. That's one of the reasons the Devils were busy at the trade deadline, adding defensemen Vladimir Malakhov and Deron Quint and winger Alexander Mogilny. They weren't sure they had enough to beat Washington in the playoffs.

The Capitals seem to have the whole conference looking over its shoulder. Philadelphia made a deadline deal for rough-and-ready Rick Tocchet. Ottawa brought in Tom Barrasso to tend its goal. Florida picked up another scorer in Mike Sillinger. All these moves were made, at least in part, with the Caps in mind. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, because George McPhee decided not to do anything at the deadline, to stick with the players he already had. Will Washington's chemistry and team play win out over the conspicuous consumption of New Jersey and the rest? That, my friends, will be the million-dollar question of the playoffs.

Florida has gotten immediate results from Sillinger three goals and three assists in his first four games. New Jersey, on the other hand, is still waiting for some thunder from Mogilny's stick. He has yet to put the puck in the net. As Calle Johansson says, "It's a little bit of a gamble [tinkering with a team so close to playoffs]. Sometimes you do it and it works out great. And sometimes it doesn't work out so great."

It worked out great for the Capitals two years ago. Late additions Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen were a big part of their run to the Stanley Cup finals. But this year, truth be known, other clubs were in a better position to make deadline trades than Washington was. They simply had more to offer.

"Some draft picks this organization made six or seven years ago didn't pan out," says Wilson. "So our philosophy has been to try to stockpile our picks and build that way while at the same time trying to be a competitive team. The teams that made deals were dumping some of their future, and they probably felt they could afford to do that. We can't."

Not yet, anyway. But give 'em a few more years. Heck, McPhee and Wilson just got here. Besides, the club they're putting on the ice now was good enough to push league-leading St. Louis to the limit Monday even though it was playing its second game in as many days. The Blues hung on to win, 2-1, but the Caps left Kiel Center thinking they might be back before the season is over. And there's a strong possibility.

"The teams are mirror images of each other, really," Wilson said. "Pressure [defense], finishing their checks, everybody working hard, everybody on the same page. I'd like to see that kind of [Stanley Cup] final, one that shows the team game is the best way to go as opposed to spending billions of dollars on free agents."

Two teams, five points, nine games. In Washington, the Capitals have been crushing just about everything in their path. In New Jersey, the Devils have reverted to playing what Holik derisively calls "pond hockey." Maybe it's too much ground for the Caps to make up in 18 days, especially considering how far they've already come. But Johansson knows this much: "If you go into to the playoffs [as New Jersey might] thinking, Oh, God, we're not that good right now, you're screwed."

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