- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Tonight, the NHL picks up where it left off before the Salt Lake City Games with all 30 teams involved in some kind of stretch drive. The front-runners are trying to solidify their positions, the mid-level pack is trying to get a foot inside the playoff door, and the bottom feeders already are fighting for next season's jobs.

For the Washington Capitals, it comes down to pure mathematics. To have a shot at the postseason, the Caps have to play .667 for their last 23 games and hope Carolina doesn't catch fire.

If the Hurricanes widen their Southeast Division lead, which stands at eight points, Washington will attempt to get a berth by finishing ranked fifth through eighth in the East, competing against at least five other teams for a spot and possibly facing the top-rated team in the conference in the first round.

At the moment, even with a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) put together between the All-Star and Olympic breaks, Washington is playing a lackluster .480 hockey. The Caps are 23-26-9-1 with two games in hand over the Hurricanes; games that become harmful unless the Caps turn them into points.

Washington has made the playoffs 17 of the last 19 seasons but if it misses this time, it will be three springs in the last six without a postseason.

"We're a good defensive team when we play well, we create a lot of offense off it and sometimes I think we forget that," center Adam Oates said. "The last four games before the break we played pretty solid hockey, everybody was accountable, we played with some enthusiasm and passion, some excitement and we played pretty well. Now we have [Steve] Konowalchuk back, we had some rest and we have to play good hockey, Caps hockey, playing strong defensively."

Konowalchuk, the team's best defensive forward, has been lost since mid-October after undergoing shoulder surgery. His absence and the loss of defenseman Calle Johansson for the season, plus the inability of others to step up, have been the major reasons for the team's slide down the defensive ladder to near rock bottom.

Konowalchuk received medical clearance to return yesterday afternoon but will not take the ice tonight against the Florida Panthers if there is even the slightest hint he is not 100 percent ready.

"We've got to be patient with Konowalchuk, obviously," said coach Ron Wilson, who will use the left wing with Ulf Dahlen and center Colin Forbes. "He's missed [four] months of action, it's going to take him awhile to catch up to game speed but he's hungry to get in there."

Also scheduled to return tonight is goalie Olie Kolzig, out with a knee sprain, but that also will be delayed if there is any sign of trouble.

"It felt real good today," Kolzig said after practice. "Last week I was pretty pessimistic I'd be able to go [tonight] but every day it's felt stronger. There's still a little bit of pain but I think it's more scar tissue than anything else. For a goalie and his knees, the biggest thing is how he feels in his head. I think I got over that today."

Washington has a murderous schedule coming down the stretch 12 of the 23 games on the road and a brutal eight-game road swing in March, tying the franchise record for most consecutive games away from home. Washington plays 15 games after March 14 and only five of them are at home.

"The practices have been energetic, the scrimmages pretty intense," Wilson said. "Everybody is healthy and I think we're in a pretty positive frame of mind to do something in the last 23 games. [But] our big players have to play big, our top players have to be on top of their games for us to be successful."

Notes Andrei Nikolishin, a member of the Russian bronze medal team, is due to be on hand today after a flight yesterday from Salt Lake City. …

Defenseman J.F. Fortin is also scheduled to rejoin the club today. …

Left wing Ivan Ciernik, re-assigned to Portland during the break, will stay with the Pirates.

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