- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

A year ago at this time, as the fourth quarter of the season was beginning, the Washington Capitals were sitting pretty 15 games above .500 (32-17-10-3) with a playoff berth all but assured.
What a strange turnaround. Washington has 15 fewer points than it had at the same point last season, is two games under .500 (25-27-9-1) and is battling seven other teams for the three playoff spots that do not appear to be locked up.
The Caps are 5-1-1 in their last seven games, a decent but not great stretch. But it may be a signal that the oft-delayed surge that has marked most Washington campaigns since the club gained a measure of respectability in the 1980s finally might have started. And not a moment too soon for a team with 20 games remaining to make its season.
The Caps play host to Toronto tonight, a team that has had a sudden series of injuries to key members as it fights for playoff positioning and home-ice advantage. The Maple Leafs are tussling with Ottawa for positioning, and the Caps did Toronto a favor Saturday night, defeating the Senators 3-2 in overtime.
Washington is no stranger to injuries this season. Peter Bondra missed the Ottawa game with the flu, the latest setback for the Caps, who have two key performers out for the season Calle Johansson and Jeff Halpern and another, Dainius Zubrus, sidelined with a broken hand.
The Caps are hanging on to the coattails of two hot players. Adam Oates has a seven-game point streak (three goals and nine assists for 12 points or 3-10-13 if he is awarded a disputed assist against Ottawa), and Jaromir Jagr has 10 goals and 28 points in his last 19 games, and he has been shut out in three of those contests.
"That was definitely a statement goal from Jags, saying he was taking charge of the game, and he did," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday while a handful of players went through an optional practice. "Obviously in 4-on-4 situations he's going to be a dominant player, and when we were in those situations in Ottawa, he was the dominant guy."
Wilson was referring to a point in the first period when the Caps let down just for a few seconds late in the period and Ottawa pumped one through. Jagr appeared infuriated at the sudden turn of events, took the puck after the following draw, went down and ripped a shot through goalie Patrick Lalime 12 seconds later to change the complexion of the game.
After an injury-marred start to the season, Jagr is back on the trail of the scoring leaders. He was still 13 points in arrears before last night's games, but that is not a huge deficit for a person of Jagr's ability.
But among those he has to catch is Oates, who had quietly slipped into a fourth-place tie among the scoring leaders (alone in fourth if he gets the disputed point). Oates has 61 points, including a league-leading 50 assists, while Jagr has climbed within four points of his center. Oates hit 50 (or 51) assists Saturday night, the 12th time in his 17-year career he has had that many.

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