- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

The strangest thing happened after the Capitals traded Adam Oates a couple of weeks ago. Instead of sinking in the standings like Enron stock, they started winning six times in seven games, all but one of them on the road. And suddenly the playoffs are within the realm of possibility for the Caps, depending on the fortunes of Les Canadiens. Who would have figured that in mid-March?

Well, maybe Ron Wilson, their eternal optimist/coach. "Look at the Seattle Mariners," he says. "They trade Griffey, who's supposed to be irreplaceable, and they find out he's not. They lose A-Rod to free agency, and they get better. Sometimes it can be good for your team when they can no longer hide behind a star player. Their responsibilities change, and they discover they're capable of doing more than they were doing before."

That certainly seems to be what's going on in Capitalsland. Oates is, after all, leading the league in assists. How could the Caps be expected to mount any kind of stretch run without him? Miraculously, though, they have thanks in no small part to the man who moved over from right wing to replace him, Dainius Zubrus.

There have been high hopes for Zubrus since he broke in with the Flyers as an 18-year-old in 1996. But as he bounced from Philadelphia to Montreal to Washington, people began to wonder if he would ever put up the numbers to match his obvious talent. He was big (6-4, 231). He was fast. He was skilled. But he hadn't had That Breakthrough yet.

Maybe this is it. Maybe he's not cut out to be a 30- or 40-goal winger. Maybe he's more of a playmaker and it took an utterly desperate situation for the Caps to realize it. Whatever the explanation, they're thrilled with the short-term results (and praying they're not just a hot streak or a fluke).

Actually, Zubrus has played some center before "30 or 40 games," he guesses, during his two seasons in Montreal. He also got some work there as a rookie in Philadelphia when Eric Lindros was hurt. So when Wilson asked him to switch to the position, it wasn't that big of a deal. It wasn't like the coach was asking him to put on the goalie gear.

"I was never unhappy playing wing," the Lithuanian says. "I always got my ice time, and I had nothing to complain about, really. It was a good situation." Still, "I like the fact that [at center] you get to move a lot more instead of waiting on the boards. You can go get the puck yourself, try to take it away from [the opposition]. There's more skating involved, and skating is definitely a big part of my game.

"And [Jaromir] Jagr, he gets so much attention from the other team that it creates a lot of room for me and [linemate Glen Metropolit], too. I don't think I've ever had that before, where when I get the puck, I have some room to do something with it."

Ah, yes, Jagr. Having him on the right wing has made the transition that much smoother for Zubrus. Jags could make a Zamboni driver look good at center. And after battling assorted ailments in the first half of the season, he's skating circles around defenders again. He's up to 74 points now in 63 games and Zubrus has already set a new career high for goals (with 15). This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

General manager George McPhee particularly likes the look of the Zubrus-Jagr-Chris Simon line, which Wilson sometimes sends out. "That's three 230-pound guys you've got there," McPhee says enough to bully the Broad Street Bullies right back. And with Zubrus at center, the Capitals should be better able to stand up to the likes of Lindros, Mario Lemieux and other mutants. The club hasn't had a lot of muscle in the middle in recent years.

Ask Zubrus about playing center on a permanent basis, and you can understand why the front office likes him so much. "I have to improve my faceoffs if I'm going to do that," he says. "I'm pretty bad. I've never had to work on 'em before because Adam and [Andrei Nikolishin] always handled that. But I don't even want to think about it now. I'm just trying to concentrate on the next game and getting the win."

That would be tonight against Tampa Bay at MCI Center. The Caps have six more chances to make up two points on Montreal and slip into the playoffs as the eighth seed. In four of those games, they'll be playing at the same time the Canadiens are. Let the scoreboard watching begin.

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