- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

If you read through the offensive stats of the Washington Capitals from last year's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is one line that stands out, one line that perhaps as much as anything beyond the 7-0 opening game debacle, illustrates why the Caps went down in defeat in five games.

Peter Bondra, the franchise's second leading all-time playoff goal scorer: five games, one goal, one assist.

The Caps, a team that can't afford to lose any offense, went into the first round against the Penguins last year with their best offensive player in a mental and physical funk.

Bondra's shoulder injury, combined with perhaps his more debilitating lack of confidence, rendered him ineffective, and the Penguins knew it. Privately, they believe in Pittsburgh that Bondra's performance was a key component to their series win.

They won't be able to count on that this year. It's a different Peter Bondra, a healthy one playing with confidence and riding the wave of a successful comeback season, with 45 goals and 36 assists this year more than double his output from last year.

"I think I am a different player," Bondra said after practice yesterday at Piney Orchard Ice Arena. "I know I am healthier. My shoulder was still bothering me going into the playoffs last year. It wasn't 100 percent and was still giving me trouble."

He also was frustrated by what he believed was his inability to fit into Caps coach Ron Wilson's structured team system, and believed his days in Washington were numbered. That also changed this year, as a healthier, happier Bondra backed off his trade requests, and instead signed a two-year contract extension for less money than he would have received as a free agent after this year.

"Hopefully I will continue to play the same way I have all year," Bondra said. "My confidence is so much stronger this year than last year. I feel so much better. Last year I was pressing, trying to do too much, maybe worrying too much, trying to force things.

"You start to question yourself and don't believe in yourself. This year it's a different story. I am more confident in my play going into the playoffs. You have to believe in yourself and try to be your best. That's what I have tried to do this year, play my best and play within our system."

If Pittsburgh believes that Bondra's performance was an important factor last year, then you can't underestimate how a healthy, happy Bondra could affect the outcome of this series, which begins tonight at MCI Center. It's hardly a leap of faith to believe that in the three losses the Caps suffered after the 7-0 opening game loss to Pittsburgh last year all decided by one goal Bondra could have been the difference.

He could be the difference this year.

"Having Peter have the season that he had, and the confidence that goes with that gives us firepower that we didn't have last year, plain and simple," Wilson said. "It's one of the reasons why our power play has been so effective, because of Peter's work on the point. He leads the league in power play goals, and that can't be discounted.

"Peter wasn't sitting out last year. He was on the ice. But he is a different player this year. He has confidence, and that's important."

Of course, Pittsburgh has a little something different in this year's series as well, a certain player they have that they didn't have last year, as if they really needed Mario Lemieux to be a frightening offensive team.

Then again, the presence of Lemieux, along with perhaps the best player in hockey, Jaromir Jagr, has put the Caps center stage all over the world in this year's playoffs. That also means that Bondra will be center stage as well, with a chance to show the world that he, too, is a great player.

"Sure, you get excited playing against players like Jagr and Lemieux," Bondra said. "You want to play your best against the best. I am not comparing myself to Jagr or Lemieux, but you definitely get up playing against them. But we also have a system to play in, and I will give everything I can within that system, and if I do, I think we will be rewarded, maybe score a big goal or help the team score the big goal, and be in the spotlight that way."

The spotlight goes far beyond MCI Center. It stretches all the way to Eastern Europe, in Slovakia, Bondra's homeland, and the rival nation Czech Republic, which is heavily represented on the Penguins, from the great Jagr to coach Ivan Hlinka.

"Everyone will be watching this series," Bondra said. "People back home in Slovakia and the Czech Republic will be watching this. I think the whole country will be watching. It's great to be in a series like this."

It's great if you play well. Otherwise, it's a nightmare, like last year, when Bondra wasn't up to the challenge.

He is far from the only one on the Caps that has to rise to the occasion this time. "You have your top five or six players, and they have to play on the top of their game in order to be successful," Wilson said. "You have to be willing not only to compete, but to play with a little risk. Not play risky hockey, but you really have to risk yourself in terms of the challenge of rising to the occasion. You can't shirk away from it at all."

Bondra hasn't shirked away from the challenge all season. If he continues to step up, the suits at ABC and the NHL will wind up with the Peter Bondra show in the playoffs and not the Mario show they are hoping for.

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