- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

There was a time not so long ago, when the Florida Panthers were still in the teething stage in the NHL, when the expansion team seemed to have found the secret to making the playoffs.
The Panthers would storm out of the gate and enjoy considerable success against better but overconfident teams that were still experimenting with line combinations and the like. At about the one-third pole, the Panthers would start to get hit by injuries and their tepid play would even out. The club would then coast during the final third, still living off the fattened record it built up earlier in the season.
Other teams, like the Washington Capitals, took a different approach. They would coast through October and part of November, get serious in December and January, coast for a while in mid-winter then turn on the jets to barely sneak into the postseason.
What is going on this season, especially in the Eastern Conference, defies comprehension but it is keeping the woebegone Caps alive, albeit barely. With the exception of Boston, every team has gone on a reasonably lengthy downward spiral and that has allowed the sputtering Caps to stay in the playoff picture.
"But the clock is ticking," warned coach Bruce Cassidy yesterday as he glanced at the standings and acknowledged Washington is staying within reach only because other teams are not playing up to their potential.
But with the season one-third gone, the outlook is hardly pleasant. As it stands right now, based on projections of what transpired so far this season, the Caps would not make the playoffs for the second season in a row. That is an unnerving thought considering Washington has one of the most talented teams assembled, one that is certainly more talented than some of the clubs that project to finish ahead of the Caps.
The Bruins, who will be at MCI Center Thursday night, are on a runaway pace to win the Eastern Conference title with 115 points. Montreal projects to be the final Eastern playoff participant with 88 points, with Pittsburgh finishing ninth with 82 points.
And the Caps? A fourth-place finish in the five-team Southeast Division is projected, 10 points poorer than last season and that was considered a disaster.
"How long do we have to wait for the team that beat Pittsburgh [4-1 on Dec. 3] to reappear?" wrote one fan in an e-mail to a newspaper. Generally, the messages that have been getting through have shown that patience is wearing paper-thin and excuses are not going to fix the problems.
"I've always said that if you're within single digits you have a chance," said Cassidy, referring to the fact Washington trails Southeast front-runner Tampa Bay by eight points. "But you don't make it up overnight, especially if you have three teams in front of you. It's not a recipe for success but at least you know you're in it."
To back up Cassidy's contention, four seasons ago the Caps trailed front-runner Florida by 16 points but won the Southeast Division title. But that was the exception to the rule.
"Tampa is starting to play better now," Cassidy said. "They were like us, they got a lot of early road games off their schedule, now they're back home and taking advantage of it. I guess that I see are some of the other teams coming back to the pack [after very quick starts], teams that are grouped around .500. There's a bunch of teams right there around .500."
Actually, you could include the Caps in that mix, three games under. There are six teams in the East within three games, over or under, of .500.
Washington could get a huge boost tonight against the Avalanche in Denver. Goalie Olie Kolzig will test his sore quadriceps muscle this morning and if he says everything is OK, he will face Colorado tonight. He has missed five games with the injury and Washington has won only two of them.
"Don't get me wrong, the clock is ticking," Cassidy said of his team's predicament. "We're almost at the halfway point [that comes Jan. 4]. We don't want to have to play .650 hockey down the stretch [to make postseason], that's too hard."
There may be no choice.

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