- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

The Washington Capitals get a final tuneup today as they prepare to resume the NHL season. The good news is that the road ahead is clear of distractions and the injury list is as short as it's going to get.
Twenty-one players made yesterday's practice, with Russian Olympians Andrei Nikolishin and Sergei Gonchar missing, along with defenseman J.F. Fortin, who had been loaned to the Portland (Maine) Pirates.
The Caps are in action tomorrow night at home against Florida, the first of 23 games remaining in the season. How the Caps compete in those games will determine whether they make the playoffs.
Washington is five points behind the New York Rangers in the race for the final playoff spot in the East. The Caps are eight points behind Southeast Division leader Carolina with two games in hand. Home-ice advantage is guaranteed for the first round for division champions. A determined Caps team can overtake either or both, but after months of less than inspired play, there is little room left for errors.
"Yeah, we're pretty close to being desperate," center Adam Oates said. "But at this time of the year almost everybody is desperate, fighting to play good hockey, trying to put themselves in good position."
Oates acknowledged that this "has been a different year" because of distractions from the All-Star break and nearly two weeks off for the Olympic break.
"A lot of players have been waiting for the Olympics, looking forward to it," he said. "For us it's been good to get a break, recharge the batteries. We had a good stretch between the breaks, picking up seven out of eight points, so we left on a good note and hopefully we can keep rolling."
Left wing Steve Konowalchuk, who had shoulder surgery Oct. 18, is scheduled to return tomorrow night against the Panthers pending the outcome of a final checkup. Yesterday he was fully involved in practice, testing the shoulder.
"So far, so good," said Konowalchuk, who was on the short list of final candidates for the U.S. Olympic team when he was injured.
"There's nothing left now but the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that's what we're all here for," he said. "There are no more breaks, we have 23 games and we have to approach every one of them as if it's a do-or-die situation. And it is."
The only question for tomorrow is goalie Olie Kolzig, who sprained his left knee Feb. 8. The injury knocked him out of Germany's Olympic plans.
"It's getting better every day," Kolzig said. "It's a little premature to say anything about the rest of this week, but it's come a long way since Friday. There's still some things in my head I have to have confidence in, but it's been better with every practice."
"We'll play it by ear and see how he feels once Tuesday comes around" was the way coach Ron Wilson viewed the Kolzig situation. Backup Craig Billington has played well in the interim, going 2-0-1.


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