- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

The Washington Capitals could be as healthy as they're going to be until after the Olympic break if three players return today, as the coaching staff hopes.

Center/wing Dainius Zubrus and defensemen Ken Klee and J.F. Fortin are listed as probable for today's game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Klee has been out since Jan. 16 with a groin pull that twice before appeared healed only to return when the defenseman tried to put pressure on it. Zubrus stopped a shot with his foot in Tuesday's 3-0 victory over Atlanta and did not play in Wednesday's 5-3 loss to Montreal.

Fortin sustained strained upper body muscles after the Vancouver game a week ago today and was expected to be out about two weeks. Instead, he missed just two games and yesterday said he felt fine after going the route in practice.

Coach Ron Wilson yesterday paid tribute to trainers Greg Smith and Tim Clark for getting players back well ahead of schedule in some cases.

"We've got a great training staff, and they've worked their rear ends off this year to get guys back quicker than usual," Wilson said. "There are certain things you have no control over, like the injuries to Calle Johansson [torn rotator cuff] and Steve Konowalchuk [shoulder surgery]. But the other guys, you'd expect them to be out a couple weeks, and to get them back in less than a week's time, that's great, great for the guys and for the team."

Washington has run up an unusual number of man-games lost to injury, 162 going into today; the club lost only 147 all last season. Long-term injuries (Johansson played 11 games before being injured and Konowalchuk five of the team's 52) make the number seem artificially high, but it's the little nagging injuries that keep players out a game or two that make maintaining consistency impossible.

"Getting Zubie back makes us a little closer to what we want to be," Wilson said of the hard-charging forward. "Zubie is playing center now, and it's going to take a little while for him to get used to that position, but any time you have someone who has speed and size [6-foot-4, 234 pounds] like he has is going to make your team better."

Wilson conducted a 15-minute meeting on the ice in the middle of practice to lecture the team on the necessity of playing strong defense constantly if it is to have any hope of making postseason.

"We talked again about defense because that's what it's going to come down to if we're going to win games," he said. "We have the best power play in the NHL, and with the exception of the Vancouver game [an 0-for-5 night], you can't say our penalty-killing has been poor lately either.

"We've done a great job on special teams, so if they aren't killing us, then 5-on-5 hockey must be, and that's all about stopping the other team from scoring. When we do that, we'll be successful. That's all my message is going to be from now on, and that's all we're going to work on in practice until we're consistent."

The Caps are plus-6 in goals in special teams play but they have been outscored by 21 in 5-on-5 situations.

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