- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

For the first time in weeks, the Washington Capitals' defense tonight might resemble what it was supposed to look like before injuries decimated the unit.
Calle Johansson is gone, done for the season after rotator cuff surgery. Ken Klee returned one game ago from a rib injury, Brendan Witt has returned from family business and Frantisek Kucera has two games under his belt, fatigue from jetlag behind him.
"We need people to step up and improve their play, that's obvious," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. "But as far as retooling [without Johansson], we play the way we do to help out our defense. Now we have to play harder to help our defense even more."
After getting off to a 5-4-1 start, decent by normal Caps standards, Washington has been letting in goals almost by the dozen while doing very little to score. Numerous reasons could be listed but it was basically an unstable roster that was suddenly saddled with an unusual number of injuries to key players.
"When you're decimated with injuries, it's hard to be consistent defensively when you've got inexperience. Sometimes you're asking people to do too much, more than they're capable of doing," Wilson said. "We've struggled for the last little while but I think we're coming out of it. I see a lot of good signs. It's not always the result, it's the process along the way. We've lost a lot of games we should have won if not for a bad minute here or there."
Witt missed five games and practiced yesterday for the first time since Nov. 7. "There's a pretty good chance he will play," Wilson said, which is good because the Caps need Witt's leadership and physical presence to move people out of Olie Kolzig's path.
Kucera was a late cut from training camp and sent back to the Czech Republic to play with his Elite Division team while still under contract with the Caps. He came to the Caps as part of the Jaromir Jagr deal. He has about 400 games of NHL experience with seven teams, plus years of international play with teams from his homeland, including a gold medal in the Nagano Olympic Games when he and Jagr were teammates.
"Kucera is a good skater, he passes the puck well and he makes sure plays all the time, which makes it a lot easier on everyone," said Sylvain Cote, the veteran who has been the newcomer's partner. "He doesn't do the high risk stuff, he's in sync with everybody right away."
He appears to have the two-way instincts to carry out Wilson's game plan, described by Cote as: "We can help the forwards by giving them better opportunities, creating some havoc for the other team's defense. We can help liberate our forwards, help them be more offensive."
After several years in the NHL, Kucera returned to the Czech Republic four years ago. He was named top defenseman in the league three times and in 1999-00, after putting up a defensive rating of plus-49 to go along with seven goals and 33 points, he was named MVP of the Czech league.
But $1.2 million U.S. is an irresistible incentive.
"We had seven defensemen in training camp and I played good in only one game," he said. "How long I stay now depends on how well I play. I think I'm in better shape now and I know I have more confidence. I know I got called up because of the injuries and because the team wasn't playing well but still, it's unusual to get recalled from Europe. It doesn't happen often."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide