- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

There are no guarantees. The early rounds of the NHL playoffs in recent years have been the scene of upsets of staggering proportions, where teams thought to be of Stanley Cup timber were sent straight to golf courses.
The Washington Capitals have assembled the best team in their history. The players themselves acknowledge this and management also does, albeit privately perhaps worried about jinxing the future.
The Caps have no excuses. They have a decent schedule. They fly charter from city to city to cut down on fatigue that can sap an athlete trying to endure a 7-month grind.
They have offense. They have one of the game's top goaltenders. They have experienced defensemen to lead and tutor the few newcomers who dot the lineup. They have a new coaching staff that seems intent on re-enforcing a teaching process that started decades ago for some.
What they don't have is a legitimate reason they shouldn't be fighting for the Eastern Conference title in mid- to late May, with the distinct possibility of competing for the Stanley Cup in June for the second time in six years.
"I have confidence in our team," said new coach Bruce Cassidy yesterday. "I just don't see why [the team cant finish high] with the talent we have in this room, the chemistry. That's not unrealistic at all.
"You always start with goaltending and work out. In Olie [Kolzig], we've got one of the best in the league. From there you look for playmakers, and we've got guys who can make plays. Then you look for intangibles, and that's what we don't know."
General manager George McPhee, who for the most part assembled this squad, hemmed and hawed when asked about its prospects. Usually GMs in his position can't wait to sing the praises of their club.
So does McPhee see any problems confronting the Caps?
"No, I don't," he said after a pause. "We like what we have on the ice. We've got depth everywhere and good players in a lot of places. We'll let this team form its own identity now and we expect they'll play very well."
For its part, the team can't wait to get started. That atmosphere changed while the club was enjoying a minicamp within training camp, a week on the road with most of the time spent in Dallas. There were team-only events that included a day of physical activities such as rope climbing at a dude ranch that turned a mob of 29 into a tightly knit team. The factions and differences that divided the club a season ago were eliminated amid rope pulls and team feeds.
Up to that point, the Caps had played poorly in preseason, not only going 0-3, but playing embarrassingly bad. Then Washington went 3-1-0-1 and could have finished with a better record if Cassidy hadn't used exhibition games to test players' limits and abilities.
"What do we need? An attitude has to develop that losing won't be acceptable," said Cassidy, who has lived that ideal through his coaching career and plans to make it a part of life with Washington.
"Every player here believes we have the personnel to do it," said left wing Steve Konowalchuk, a Cap for all of his 11 pro seasons and elected captain of the team Tuesday. "We're a confident group. The last two weeks, we're right where we want to be [in preparation]. I think we've got every key position filled. Now we fill the holes and get the chemistry going and then it's a matter of doing it on the ice. We believe we can go deep in the playoffs."
This is the time of the year when optimism is the spice of life for everybody, when, for a day or so, everybody is equal. But very few boast the talent of the Caps.
OFFENSE: There are coaches who would kill for this lineup. Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Dainius Zubrus, Chris Simon, Kip Miller, Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, Mike Grier, plus a feisty fourth line that has a role yet to be defined.
The players are young for the most part, and fast. What Cassidy should be worried about is an offensive mindset that may lead players astray and result in games like the golden days of the Edmonton Oilers, when 8-6 victories were considered defensive gems.
The downside Zubrus is not in game shape after holding out for all of training camp. Halpern is in the same situation, missing all eight preseason games with a groin injury following six months of recovery from knee surgery.
The upside there appears to be enough depth on the team to allow those two to play themselves into shape. The parts are pleasantly interchangeable Kip Miller centered the first line through camp and is now a right wing on the second line. He, or fourth line center Glen Metropolit, can easily glide up and spell Zubrus or Halpern while they catch their breath.
Goals should not be a problem, but that will not eliminate the occasional shutout. Cassidy's emphasis is on forechecking and defense.
The power play should be the Caps' best ever. Sergei Gonchar, who led all NHL defensemen with 26 goals last season, will be on one point with Bondra manning the other. Lang will center Jagr and either Simon or Zubrus.
DEFENSE: There is a touch of inexperience here with rookie Steve Eminger still 18, J.F. Fortin playing in his second season and Rick Berry trying to get his feet planted.
But there is Calle Johansson, healthy and fit; Brendan Witt, Gonchar, Ken Klee and Sylvain Cote experience galore to help the youngsters over hurdles.
GOALTENDING: Kolzig had a miserable season last year and keeps reminding himself of that. He has played better in training camp than he has in years and his knee has recovered. He is being backed by rookie Sebastien Charpentier.
"We've got all the potential of having a great year but we've got to do it one game at a time, not get ahead of ourselves," Kolzig said.
Let the games begin.



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