- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

OK, the Tampa Bay Lightning are for real. Heading into the Christmas break, the Lightning are tied for the Southeast Division lead, are one of only three teams in the Eastern Conference to score 100 or more goals, and have survived despite injuries.
But the question hockey fans in the Washington area want answered is, are their Capitals finally for real? They play host to the Lightning tonight and if they win, they're at .500 for Christmas and have 47 games left in the season to improve their lot.
Washington is unbeaten in three (2-0-1), not a very large streak but a big one for a team whose only consistent standard this season has been its inconsistency. The Caps have won two in a row, something they've done only once since early November.
"It's a home game, we're playing well, there's no reason we can't get it done," said coach Bruce Cassidy after a brief practice yesterday. "If we win, what are we then, three points out of first place [in the division] at the Christmas break?"
Washington is coming off a tie in Colorado, a 5-3 win over Boston, which was leading the Eastern Conference at that time, and a 3-1 come-from-behind triumph at the New York Islanders Saturday night, which gives the Caps a record of 21-1-3 against the Islanders in their last 25 games.
Several teams have been major surprises this season, starting with Tampa Bay and Minnesota and stretching out to include the Bruins, Dallas and Vancouver. The Caps have also surprised but only when they stumbled badly during the first third of the season. Many believe the inconsistencies came from a new coach trying to put in a system that was foreign to a very divergent group, one that did not respond well.
"I think we're pecking away at that for sure," Cassidy said. "The chemistry has been good lately. We've found some lines that we've stuck with for the most part [Jaromir] Jagr and [Michael] Nylander, [Robert] Lang and [Peter] Bondra, the [Jeff] Halpern line, and even the defensive pairs.
"There's been a lot of shuffling and you can write that off to my inexperience. I was trying a lot of different combinations and maybe the guys here just wanted to be comfortable with certain players."
Saturday night the Caps kept poking pucks at goalie Rick DiPietro for more than two periods until finally two went in and produced a win. Earlier in the season the Caps might have given up after two periods and gone through the motions in the third. But now there is a sense of belief in one another, and that might not have been as strong earlier.
That would easily be the feeling in the Tampa Bay locker room, where winning regularly is perhaps not the strange thing it might have been early in the season.
"They're not used to being in first place," said Cassidy. "They're being hunted now instead of being the hunters. Players have to prepare now and be ready to show up and play or they won't have any success. People look at Minnesota and Tampa and they say, 'Geez, they're playing well but are they really that good?' People had better take them seriously. It should be a good game."
Michael Nylander has 10 goals and 26 points in his last 16 games, and he was shut out in two of the 16. Those attending tonight's game receive a copy of the team calendar, which arrives 35 games into an 82-game schedule. Tampa Bay left wing Dave Andreychuk, who broke the big toe on his right foot Dec.3 in Toronto, is back on skates well ahead of schedule, to nobody's surprise. He is being listed as day-to-day but he hasn't practiced in about a month so it is doubtful he could go tonight. Andreychuk has scored 251 power play goals in his career, more than any other player in history.

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