- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

Two years ago, one prominent hockey publication called the Washington Capitals' checking line the best unit of its kind in the game.
There was no reference to that last season. Jeff Halpern was lost for about half the season with knee surgery, Steve Konowalchuk was missing for months after shoulder surgery and Ulf Dahlen was shuffled line-to-line like an unwanted relative, when he wasn't hurt.
The line was one of many factors missing last season, but it has been put back together for this campaign and, after a shakedown period, seems to be operating at peak efficiency, although those who make up the unit maintain there is work to be done.
"I can't say enough about them," coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday, adding that he thought they should shoot more something he says about everybody else on the team, too.
Halpern has returned from knee surgery and a groin problem that kept him sidelined during the preseason. Konowalchuk returned for the end of last season and is now fully recovered. Dahlen opted for free agency and moved to Dallas, where he is currently out for about a month with a high ankle sprain.
Mike Grier, also a right wing, fills Dahlen's spot but is really not much like the Swede. Dahlen had massive legs and the upper body of a normal human. Grier skates on toothpicks but has a massive upper body that he uses to mash other players into the boards.
Dahlen would finesse the puck into his possession then use his feet and legs to keep it pinned to the boards, many times forcing the opposition to take dump penalties in an effort to get it back. Grier meets other players with all the subtlety of a speeding freight train.
"They're totally different players," Konowalchuk said, "but I think we can be just as effective. Mike adds some things that Ulfie didn't have, whereas Ulfie was really offensive, great at making plays. Mike can also score, but he adds a physical presence."
Grier was obtained in an Oct.7 trade with Edmonton and was mentioned as a possible second-line wing. But he was intended for that checking unit when he isn't the designated disturber on the power play, the guy who has to sacrifice his body to screen the goalie.
"It's a good chance, an opportunity," he said of playing with Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander. "My job is pretty basic get the puck back [to the power forwards], screen the goalie, look for tips and rebounds. I try to create some space for people."
Grier has eight goals and 14 points in his last 15 games, now that he has become acclimated to his linemates and the team. It has taken a while, learning how Halpern and Konowalchuk do things and vice versa.
"We're getting the performances we want; I don't know if we're getting the results we want," Halpern said. "Obviously, we're pretty happy with [the Boston] game; that was kind of like a lot of the games we played 2-3 years ago, when we spent a lot of time in the other team's end, got the puck out of our zone real quick."
The line had two goals, five points and was plus-7 defensively in Thursday's 5-3 win against the Bruins. Which is precisely why former coach Ron Wilson referred to the unit as a possession line. Konowalchuk and Dahlen and now Grier in that role would cycle the puck down low along the boards, drawing defenders into their trap which would eventually leave Halpern, positioned at the hash marks in front, open for a great shot.
"The three of us are starting to figure each other out," Halpern said. "Mike is learning what we need; we're learning what he needs. He's a speed guy, a heavy hitter and we know when he goes into the corner, he's coming out with the puck most of the time."
Said Cassidy: "I try to use them at the start of every period when you need a good solid shift. They set the tone for us, every night."

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