- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

The Washington Capitals shoot for the .500 mark again tonight, a point they have reached recently but not been above since the third week in October. It would be significant to get there tonight in Ottawa because it concludes the first half of the season for Washington.

So far, 2001-2002 has been a struggle for the Caps, who are trying to cope with a compressed schedule because the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games will take a two-week bite out of the season in February. Washington has been unable to get on a consistent winning roll, twice having winning streaks of three games but at one point winning only two games in a stretch of 12.

The Caps are now unbeaten in three (2-0-1) since coach Ron Wilson halted practice moments after it began two days after Christmas and held a 40-minute meeting during which players were asked to voice their concerns. That was only hours after Philadelphia toyed with Washington and easily swept the four-game season series.

Wilson held another meeting yesterday, this one 15 minutes long, at the end of a short but intense practice. Wilson pointed out how well the team had played the previous night in beating the New York Islanders 3-2, and they accomplished that by concentrating on defense and backing up each other.

Washington will have to play at least that well to beat the Senators tonight and the Bruins in Boston on Saturday afternoon, two teams that are strong at home.

Wilson said using seven defensemen instead of the usual six as he did Tuesday night was "a possibility" but he hadn't made up his mind. It gave him several options that might have escaped notice and also appeared to equalize ice time, resting some players who are often tired.

"I didn't want to be in the same short-handed situation we were [Sunday]," Wilson said of dressing seven defensemen, not knowing how far Brendan Witt could go after returning from a badly bruised hand. "Ulf Dahlen wanted to go [Sunday] but couldn't play after the first period. Witt wanted to play, but then if he couldn't go we'd be down to five defensemen, which isn't bad sometimes, but having the extra defenseman is nice. You're not really using four lines anyway, so taking somebody out of that fourth line spot didn't harm our team at all."

If anything, it helped. The Islanders came close on more than one occasion to having too many men on the ice or not enough as they tried to juggle defenders on and off the ice. They would be guarding Jaromir Jagr on one shift only to see him stay on the ice to work with Peter Bondra, resulting in confusion among defenders trying to keep up with assignments.

"I'm mixing up lines anyway from here on in," Wilson said yesterday. "This is about winning games, not keeping everybody happy. This is about winning, which keeps the right people happy."

Notes Jagr was excused from practice yesterday so he could have more root canal work done. It's a pretty good bet he rather would have practiced. … Adam Oates was given the day off because of the amount of ice time he is logging (more than 21 minutes a game, down from last season but still a lot for a 39 year old). … Witt did not practice but instead took treatment for his injured hand. He will play tonight. … Ottawa is missing three regular defensemen and two forwards. One of the injured forwards is left wing Petr Schastlivy, who was leading the American Hockey League in scoring when he was called up. He suffered a serious knee injury in his first game and may be done for the season.

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