- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

When wing Ulf Dahlen injured his foot in mid-December, he led the Washington Capitals in scoring, was on the same line with Adam Oates and Jaromir Jagr and was getting plenty of action on the power play. Gone were the lunchpail tasks that usually accompany duty on the checking line.

But MCI Center fans enjoyed watching Dahlen work his specialty, getting possession of the puck and holding onto it behind the opponent's net, waiting for a mistake to capitalize on. Bigger, tougher men were unable to get the puck away from him.

"It's fun to drive them nuts," Dahlen said yesterday when asked which role he preferred, mucking and grinding along the boards or zipping up the ice on the first line. "It's fun to be offensive, too, but either way, it's fun."

Dahlen is back on the checking line, and it's no reflection on his offensive skills. It is more that the Caps need the defensive stonewall that unit created for the past two years when Dahlen, center Jeff Halpern and left wing Steve Konowalchuk comprised it. Halpern is out for the season with knee surgery, and Konowalchuk has just returned after missing 54 games following shoulder surgery.

"It's not really a checking line," argued coach Ron Wilson, who dislikes labels. "They're not out there checking the other team they're out there trying to score and create offense."

After some reflection, he added, "What I'm hoping for is a puck possession line. You hope to get some offense from those guys, [but] it is the shutdown line in the sense they compete well defensively."

Konowalchuk returned from his surgery two games ago, and Andrei Nikolishin or Colin Forbes has replaced Halpern in the middle. It is still a crash-bang line, one that can create a tempo that can put the other team on its heels with its style of play. Dahlen and Konowalchuk established chemistry immediately, possessing the ability, Wilson said, of "being able to communicate without saying anything." The coach usually uses that line to start games.

"We try to get the puck in deep and cycle, play like a checking line," said Dahlen, who just turned 35. "You don't take too many chances, trying to keep possession of the puck down low and draw penalties, or frustrate the other team, or create something good that you can build on."

He has 19 goals (already his high in the last eight seasons) and 42 points and is on the way to his best season in the three he has spent with Washington after ending a self-imposed exile to his native Sweden, disgusted with the way things were in the NHL. He has a one-year contract and won't even discuss negotiations until after the Caps' season ends, "sometime in June," he said.

Dahlen was part of the Team Sweden debacle in the Salt Lake City Games, when the Swedes lost 4-3 to Belarus and were dumped out of the tournament on the first day of single-elimination play. The shock of what happened is fading, but the hurt will be there forever.

"We lost the Stanley Cup final in 1991," he said of his days playing for the Minnesota North Stars, "and you still think about what you could have done differently in that game. It's probably going to be the same about [the Belarus] game. At least I have a chance to redeem myself here."

Note The availability of versatile wing Dainius Zubrus won't be known until today. He missed practice yesterday to have a doctor examine his sore right arm, which he had said had been bothering him for about two months. Wilson said Zubrus was questionable for tonight's game at Ottawa but did not think it was a long-term injury. "This is playoff time if it's minor you've got to find a way of sucking it up," Wilson said.

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