- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2001

Jeff Halpern is not the sole cause, but he is a part of the Washington Capitals' current slide, a microcosm of the team's problems. His only goal this season came on opening night, 15 games ago, and he is minus-7 defensively, not a stat you want the center of your checking line to own.
"I'm at a loss for words," he said yesterday.
Halpern is a worrier, looking over his shoulder even in the best of times. He has been on the ice for so many even-strength goals-against that he can't sleep at night.
"It definitely eats away at you," he said. "It's a skill to be able to put things like this aside and not dwell on it but I've never been like that. I always thought I played better letting that stuff eat away at me and use it as motivation. It hasn't worked, at least not for the first 15 games."
The Caps are winless in their last five (0-4-1), three games below .500 (5-8-2) and seven points behind Southeast Division leader Carolina, tonight's opponent at MCI Center. They have scored a total of five goals in their last five games; 10 of the 18 skaters on the ice tonight have yet to score a goal this season.
Washington has been without Jaromir Jagr off and on, but this is a team that rang up 96 points last season without Jagr, so missing him doesn't hold a lot of water as an excuse. The loss of Steve Konowalchuk is proving to be more devastating. Konowalchuk, Halpern's left wing and one of the best defensive forwards in the league who also scored 24 goals last season, is out until late February after shoulder surgery.
"I miss Kono, but the team misses him more," Halpern said. "I think if people haven't realized it by now, he's been the heartbeat of the team, at least since I've been here."
Coach Ron Wilson has been trying to match players with Halpern and wing Ulf Dahlen since Konowalchuk's Oct. 18 surgery. It has forced Halpern to try to change his game from a defensive posture to something else, trying to adapt to a differing cast that has included Jagr, among others.
"With Kono, I knew exactly where to go, what to do," Halpern said. "I think I've made the mistake of trying to change my game playing with different guys. I think I've made the mistake of trying to be something I'm not."
That may change tonight. Wilson has put Joe Sacco, a speedy defensive wing, on Halpern's line and maybe the trio can concentrate on what it does best, defend.
"He's been on the ice for a lot of goals-against," Wilson said of Halpern. "His role in the past has been to center our checking line and stop the other team from scoring. The goals you chip in [Halpern had 21 last season] are gravy and that hasn't happened. The last couple games that line's been on the ice in the third period and been scored against. We have to find a way to overcome that. Take care of your own end and the other end eventually will take care of itself. Don't compound it by not getting the job done defensively."
Yesterday Halpern was off the ice unusually early for the compulsive worker. Maybe that has been the problem, he thought, maybe it's time to slow down a little, be more patient.
"I thought I hit rock bottom about five games ago but I just keep digging and digging," he said. "My goal right now is to go out and not give up any goals, use that as a starting point. You know, one game at a time, then 10 games, that kind of thing. I've got a job to do."
Notes
Jagr skated briefly yesterday and said he feels better but is not close to playing. … Adam Oates, who has missed three games with a bruised ankle, participated in a full practice and appears ready to play. … Missing from practice: defensemen Brendan Witt, Joe Reekie and Sergei Gonchar. The first two sustained undisclosed injuries Tuesday night in Toronto and Gonchar is nursing a slight groin pull. Wilson admitted that Witt and Reekie were banged up against the Leafs but said all three should be ready for the Hurricanes.


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