- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

Teammates know this about Robert Lang: He’s always happy. They can see it on his face.

He gets a hat trick against Carolina on Nov. 12 — big smile. He heads to the penalty box for some infraction — still smiling. He has one facial expression — a broad grin presumably there since birth.

It’s not that he doesn’t take life seriously. In fact, he is a smart man with excellent hockey sense who understands the Caps’ dire situation. There isn’t a lot to smile about at 7-15-1-1, but that hasn’t changed Lang’s demeanor.

“He’s just always happy, whether things are going good or bad,” Penguins left wing Martin Straka told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly before being traded to Los Angeles. “And I don’t think anybody is going to change him.”

Straka, Lang and Alexei Kovalev (now a New York Ranger) formed one of the most feared second lines in the past few years when they were Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and either Jan Hrdina or Kip Miller were the top unit). Lang had a career-high 80 points with that line one season.

Despite the Caps’ start, Lang is on pace to shatter that. Heading into last night’s games, Lang was third in the NHL scoring race with 14 goals, 17 assists and 31 points, one point behind the co-leaders.

“He doesn’t do anything different,” said the Caps’ Jagr, who also has played with Lang on the Czech national team and ranks seventh in the league with 25 points. “When you have a good start you have confidence, and you can just play your game. There’s no pressure on you. You don’t have to change anything because people are unhappy with the way you play.”

Miller said Lang isn’t doing anything surprising. Those who know him knew he was talented.

“He used to play with guys who carried the puck [in Pittsburgh], and all he had to do was stand in the slot and shoot,” Miller said. “Now he’s expected to carry the puck and stick-handle and make plays. He’s always been able to do it; he just never needed to.

“He’s strong, really strong, and sometimes that doesn’t come through. He’s got a good quick shot, good hands. His speed is deceptive; if he gets a little step on you, he’s so strong you can’t recover. He’s definitely not one of the prettiest skaters, but he’s definitely not slow.”

So why has it taken Lang so long to blossom?

For one thing, he has bounced around the league — there were stops in Los Angeles, Boston and Pittsburgh, plus a few returns to the minor leagues or the Czech Republic. And during those stops, he hasn’t been considered a primary goal scorer.

“Maybe he needed to be away from us,” Kovalev told the Pittsburgh newspaper. “I’m serious. Even when the three of us played together, he always knew [Straka] could score and I could score, so he was more of a setup guy, the guy who would take care of our end. Right now, his responsibility is to score goals, and everybody loves when that happens. I think it’s great for him. It looks like he’s really taken control of that team.”

Lang has been on fire for more than a month, and Jagr has been nearly as impressive. Lang, the top candidate for NHL player of the month with 11 goals and 11 assists in November, is on a 15-game point streak. It is the longest in the NHL this season and two games short of the Washington record of 17 set by Mike Gartner. Jagr has points in 11 consecutive games (five goals and 13 assists for 18 points). In the month of November, the duo combined to score 17 of the Caps’ 41 goals or 42 percent of the team’s offense.

Notes — Jagr, who had two goals and six assists last week and was plus-5 defensively in four games, was runner-up for offensive player of the week honors (Lang had six points and was only plus-3). Vancouver’s Markus Naslund won the honor with nine points in four games. … In the fan balloting for the Caps’ all-time team from its first 10 years, Yvon Labre and Rick Green were chosen top defensemen; Bob Carpenter, Denis Maruk and Ryan Walter were voted the top forwards; and Al Jensen was the fans’ selection as the top goalie. Voting on the team Web site is under way for the second 10-year period. … The Caps are on Long Island tonight, the second game in a five-game road swing. The Islanders have lost five straight and eight of 10. Washington is at New Jersey on Thursday night before heading west.

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