Friday, November 30, 2001

Yes, the season isn’t a third complete. And yes, the Washington Capitals have started this slowly the past two years and wound up taking the Southeast Division title. But the Capitals aren’t downplaying the significance of this weekend’s home-and-home series with the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes, which begins tonight at MCI Center.
“This a huge weekend for us and for Carolina as well,” said Caps coach Ron Wilson, whose team remained nine points behind the Hurricanes after Carolina’s 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers last night. “These games almost have a playoff-quality feeling, which is maybe what we need now.”
Added All-Star defenseman Sergei Gonchar, “We have to win these games. If we lose, we’re going to be way behind.”
Two years ago, the Caps were 9-10-5-1 (24 points) after 25 games. They trailed Florida by 17 points after 38 games but wound up winning the division by four points. Last year, the Caps were 8-10-6-1 (23 points) after 25 games. They led Carolina 49 points to 48 on Jan. 19, but the Hurricanes had two games in hand. The Caps won the division by eight points.
“We’ve had success coming from this position before, but … you do it so many times, you think it’s automatically going to happen and you forget that you have to work hard to get out of it,” Wilson said.
The Caps have been known as a hard-working team for two decades, but their 3.17 goals-against average is currently better than only Atlanta’s. Washington yielded 15 goals in its past three games, tying one and losing two. And before last night’s games, only four teams had enjoyed less success killing penalties.
“For a team that everybody says all we do is play defense, we’re not doing a very good job of it,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to cut down the needless mistakes in our end. Whether we’re hurt [Washington has lost 51 man-games to injury] or tired [tonight’s game is its fifth in eight days], those are lame excuses. We’ve got to find a way to get the job done. [On Tuesday, the New York Islanders] had some fortuitous bounces, but they had also had some chances where [backup goalie Craig Billington] made some big saves, so in the end it evens out. The first two goals last night [in the 5-2 home-ice loss to Buffalo] are mistakes by defensemen that can’t happen. We’ve just got to play tighter as a group. Some people have to pick up their play. If you’re a veteran, you know how to play defense, so do it.”
Notes Right wing Peter Bondra’s next goal, his 398th, will move him past Hall of Famer Mike Gartner and into first place on Washington’s career goal list. Gartner scored 397 in 758 games. Tonight will be Bondra’s 780th for Washington.
“The record is going to come sooner or later, so I’m not really thinking about it,” Bondra said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to be No. 1 and to have been a part of this team for 12 years.” …
Gonchar, who missed the loss to the Sabres with an undisclosed injury, was among the players who participated in yesterday’s optional skate. Gonchar said he expects to play tonight. If Gonchar returns, veteran defenseman Joe Reekie, who was beaten on those two early goals by the Sabres, likely will be scratched for the sixth time in seven games. …
Defenseman Calle Johansson, who’s out for the year following shoulder surgery, said he hopes to take off his shoulder harness in 10 days. Johansson, who missed just 70 games during his first 12-plus years with the Caps, will sit out 71 this season. …
Carolina goalie Tom Barrasso, who was out of the league last year and presumably done at 36, is 3-1-3 with a 1.52 GAA in his past seven games and has claimed the No. 1 job from 1999 All-Star Arturs Irbe, who started 66 of the final 70 games last season.

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