- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

George McPhee watched knowingly Tuesday night as Alexei Kovalev's slap shot struck the skate of a Buffalo player, kicked about 15 feet in the air and landed, providentially, in the crease, where Mario Lemieux happened to be situated. The Penguins were a mere 78 seconds from playoff elimination, their goalie pulled for an extra attacker, when Lemieux slid the puck past Dominik Hasek and sent the game into overtime where Pittsburgh, of course, prevailed.

See? These things the "Immaculate Deflection," they're calling it in Pittsburgh don't just happen to the Capitals. (Though they do seem to happen to anybody who plays the Pens.)

"Unbelievable," the Caps' general manager said yesterday. "Nobody in the rink knew where the puck was [after it caromed off the Sabres' Curtis Brown] except Lemieux."

Mario had tormented the Capitals in much the same way in the previous round. Time after time he would park himself on Olie Kolzig's doorstep, and time after time the puck would magically find him. Jeff Halpern and Co. defended against Lemieux like the dickens and still the Caps lost.

They've got plenty of company in their misery, though, as McPhee was quick to point out. "Detroit is out [of the playoffs]," he said. "Colorado is on the verge of being out. Ottawa is out. New Jersey is in a seventh game." Those were the top four teams in the league during the regular season.

"These days, it's just a matter of making the playoffs. Then if you work hard and get a couple of lucky bounces like Pittsburgh did [in Game 6] who knows? We were a shot away from making it to Game 7 [against the Penguins]. That's how close these teams are."

McPhee has to be encouraged by what he's seeing in these playoffs. St. Louis and Buffalo two strong defensive teams who are much like the Capitals are both doing well after adding some scoring punch at the trading deadline. The Blues, who dealt for Keith Tkachuk, just swept Dallas in the second round and are the hottest team in hockey. And the Sabres, who brought in Donald Audette and Steve Heinze, came within the aforementioned Lemieux goal of beating Pittsburgh four straight times (and can still advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a victory in Buffalo tonight).

The Caps are kind of where the Blues and Sabres were earlier in the season. As McPhee puts it, "We're fine in every other department. We're deep enough, we have good veterans, we have some young guys coming up, we have excellent goaltending, our forwards play hard. If we can just add a little offense… . I don't know if it's ever been as clear with this club [as far as what it needs to do to take the Next Step]."

St. Louis, you may recall, had the best regular-season record in the NHL a year ago and bombed out in the first round of the playoffs. All the pieces seemed to be there except for one more big-time scorer to go with Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young. Buffalo allowed the fewest goals in the league this season (184), but it was only 16th in the "goals for" category. Thus the deals for Tkachuk (two goals and six assists in 10 playoff games), Audette and Heinze (a combined five goals and nine assists in 12 games), all of whom have delivered for their new teams.

Now McPhee has to find a player or two who will do the same for the Capitals. It's a good year to be shopping for offensive help. Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin among others are expected to be available. Indeed, Yashin's Senators, who have disappointed in the playoffs three years in a row, could decide to really shake up the roster and move someone like Daniel Alfredsson or Marian Hossa. Rest assured McPhee will be monitoring the situation closely.

"A lot of people seem to think we may go hard after free agents," he says. "But we may have our needs met by a trade."

And who might the Caps be willing to part with? Underachieving Dmitri Khristich, certainly. And perhaps Chris Simon and one of the club's still-developing players (Kris Beech?). Khristich might be difficult to deal because of his big contract, however, and Simon's and Beech's injury histories make them "buyer beware." It'll be interesting to see what develops.

Nothing figures to develop for a while. McPhee just finished exit interviews with the players, and now he's preparing a state-of-the-franchise report for owner Ted Leonsis and his partners. Next week the scouts come in to talk about the draft, and the week after that McPhee and his family are going on vacation. Here's hoping he gets plenty of rest and doesn't have too many nightmares about Mario Lemieux. This is the Capitals' most important offseason in a long time, and their GM needs to be at the top of his game.

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