- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The Washington Capitals play the Sabres in Buffalo tonight with little room for error in their playoff quest. The same can be said for the Sabres, Montreal, New York Rangers and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh.
For the Capitals and Rangers, however, the situation is desperate. Of all the teams fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, those two have the fewest games (nine) left to play. The other three each have 10 left.
The Caps first have to worry about winning their own games but they also need help. The Canadiens are two points up on Washington, three on the Rangers (before last night) and Sabres. If Montreal runs the board or even comes close, the race is over.
Washington has two games left against Buffalo, New Jersey and the New York Islanders and single games against Tampa Bay, Ottawa and Chicago five at home and three on the road after tonight.
And the Caps are hurting. More than a quarter of the team's offense (54 of 200 goals) has come off the power play and two key members of that unit are gone. Center Adam Oates (third in the league in power play assists and sixth in power play points) has been traded and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who fires rockets from the left point, is out with a concussion. Gonchar leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 23 goals (seven on the power play) and 55 points.
Gonchar was injured last Thursday night when he was slammed by an airborne Darcy Tucker, a Toronto forward who last night served the second game of his two-game suspension for the incident. Tucker's elbow to the head rendered Gonchar unconscious and he had to be assisted from the ice. He has not been on skates since; tonight will be the third game he has missed.
"His status hasn't changed, we just hope he's ready for Friday," said general manager George McPhee, referring to a game against the Devils in New Jersey. Gonchar has had at least two previous concussions and there is no accurate way to determine when the bruise to the brain will heal sufficiently to allow him to play.
"Gonch came in this morning but he didn't go on the ice and he won't play against Buffalo, either," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday after a brief optional practice in which 18 players took part. "You have to be symptom-free for two days and he wasn't symptom-free [Sunday]."
Sunday night in Pittsburgh Gonchar said he had been feeling better but didn't know when he would return.
"Yes, you feel better until you exercise," Wilson said. "It's not like you walk around in a daze, it's how you feel when you exercise."
"We decided to take a couple days off, not to do anything, not to even try and then see how it's going," said Gonchar yesterday. "I will try again Thursday. Hopefully the game against New Jersey I will be able to come back."
Both McPhee and Wilson pealed a few layers of flesh off the backsides of the referees of that game in Toronto Dave Jackson and Kevin Maguire for not calling Tucker for any penalty after the incident. Maguire is a former Toronto player who played 260 NHL games with 782 penalty minutes so there is little doubt he knows what elbowing, charging and boarding are.
Maguire told the Toronto Sun that his ties to teams he played for have "never been an issue, never [are] an issue." He told the newspaper he was upset that Wilson would believe he has a bias for Toronto.
"[Wilson] just throws it out there," the referee said. "You throw enough of it out there, you see how much stuff sticks. … I wasn't too impressed with [McPhees] comments, either. That's the heat of the moment. It happens but I'll take that up with the league at a different time. I don't want to comment on that now."
Two league sources have said privately that the officiating hierarchy was astounded that no penalties were called on the ice after they saw tapes of the incident, and that there was no way to defend the officials' lack of action.


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