- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

BOSTON The Washington Capitals said yesterday that Brendan Witt, their team captain and best young defenseman, will miss today's game against Boston with a sprained right thumb. The statement said Witt would be re-evaluated when the team returns to Washington.

Witt was injured 15 minutes into the second period of Thursday night's 4-1 loss in Ottawa when he was slashed, accidentally it appeared, by Senator star Daniel Alfredsson as the wing was attempting to clear a puck out of his zone.

Witt, in obvious pain on the bench, did not return. X-rays reportedly were negative but it would not be the first time a bone fracture did not immediately appear on film, hence the "re-evaluation" portion of the team's statement.

But what is not clear and could not be determined last night was whether this was a new injury or the aggravation of a previous injury. Yesterday's statement said specifically Witt had sprained his right thumb but the defenseman sustained what was described as a bruised left forearm in the Carolina game Dec. 30.

Either way, Witt is missing today against one of the hottest teams in the league and the Caps are down to six defensemen, a group which has already been shredded by injuries this season and has been performing poorly as a unit. As a group, the defensemen are old and, as would be expected, no longer very quick.

Calle Johansson, the club's best all-around defender and a steadying influence on the ice, played 11 games and was lost for the season with rotator cuff surgery. He was Witt's partner and Witt has not played as well when teamed with others.

Veterans Joe Reekie and Rob Zettler have been healthy scratches for various lengths of time because of ineffective play, as was Ken Klee; Frantisek Kucera, who did not survive the final cut coming out of training camp, had to be brought back from Europe not your average recall move, Kucera noted at the time.

Sergei Gonchar has 14 goals and 34 points but is not the most reliable defenseman in the game when it comes to clearing the opposition from in front of the net. And Sylvain Cote, 36, is constantly trying to watch to make sure everybody's job is done and while doing so neglects his own, as his team-worst minus-17 defensive rating attests.

Witt was also struggling (minus-8) but was nonetheless a physical force that kept opposing teams honest around the crease and against the boards. Washington has nobody on the roster now, and nobody in the minor leagues, who can replace that element.

The Caps have struggled defensively from the outset, which is not totally unusual but normally the club has rebounded by this time and is well on its way toward righting the ship. That does not appear to be the case this season. The team has been unable to establish any consistency two good games followed by three bad ones, three good ones followed by four or five stinkers, and so forth.

When goalie Olie Kolzig is hot, the forwards or defenders or both seem to take a night off. When Kolzig is awful, and there have been times when he has been, no one seems capable of stepping up their game to make up for it.

What this all is clearly illustrating is the value to the team of one wing who usually gets little or no publicity, silently performing his defensive duties in almost unexcelled fashion. Left wing Steve Konowalchuk, out since the first weeks of the season with shoulder surgery and not due back until after the Olympics next month, not only was a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate as top defensive forward in the league but he also contributed 24 goals last season, second only to Peter Bondra's 45.

Missing from today's game will be Johansson, Konowalchuk, Witt and wing Ulf Dahlen, a fair chunk of the defensive heart of the team.

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