- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

It has been a season of transition for the Washington Capitals a key newcomer to work into the lineup and injuries, one after another, that constantly shuffled the lineup.

"In terms of me and him, I'm not even worried about it anymore. I'm totally comfortable," center Adam Oates said yesterday, referring to his relationship with right wing Jaromir Jagr.

But Oates' statement sort of summed up what has taken place on the whole team, where things have finally settled down, where lines are now more or less set, where defensive partners don't have to wear name tags on the front of their shirts.

"We've got confidence now," said defenseman Brendan Witt, who struggled for a while after losing his long-time partner, Calle Johansson, when the latter was lost for the season in November. Witt was eventually paired with promising rookie J.F. Fortin, and the two have played successfully as a unit for weeks.

The Caps, in fact, have put together their best run of the season, 7-2-2, as they battle to gain ground in the fight for a playoff berth. Washington is well within range to grab one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and a shot at the Southeast Division title is not out of the question, although time is the critical factor there.

"I think we've really improved defensively," said goalie Olie Kolzig. "We're not giving up odd-man rushes like we used to, we're not giving up as many point-blank chances, we're doing little things right and we're playing the way we were supposed to play since the beginning of the season. We're a lot healthier than we were, Jagr is healthy and playing with a lot of passion. Oates has been playing great all year, Peter Bondra is healthy again and Sergei Gonchar is playing well."

But it is the supporting cast that coach Ron Wilson spoke of yesterday, the people who step up when others are out or simply having a bad night.

"We've got a fourth line that can start some forechecking with some speed and get a few hits in. Joe Sacco provided a spark with speed and getting involved in a fight [Sunday]," he said, referring to a little-used wing.

"The unfortunate part is a lot of the games have been so close that you end up using three lines against the other team's three lines. In our case, I'm obviously trying to get Oates and Jagr on the ice a lot. When you're in a fight for your life, you want your top players on the ice more. Those two guys will go out every other shift; you can't take the ice time away from your second or third lines as much as you end up taking it away from your fourth."

Witt pointed out that even when things go badly for a while, there is no panic as there might have been a few weeks or months back.

"When we didn't have a few good starts, we just stayed with the game plan," he said. "We played defense and we knew we'd get our chances. We get a lot of offense off our defense. We don't get much going if we don't play well in our own end or if we make risky plays."

Notes No decision on the availability of wing Dainius Zubrus is expected until game time. He is coming back from a broken hand. … Defenseman Patrick Boileau, called up Sunday from Portland when the team feared one of its regular defensemen could not play, was sent back to the Pirates yesterday. All the regulars played and the team has not identified which one was in question.


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