- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

The Washington Capitals’ practice yesterday was almost like a fun skate on a Sunday afternoon on a pond back home. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that tranquil but it appeared to be more an exercise in keeping legs loose rather than an exercise in conditioning.

Amazing what a tiny bump in the standings can do for morale. For the first time since the third week of the season, Washington is out of the cellar in the Eastern Conference and NHL as a whole. Pittsburgh now brings up the rear in both categories, a single point behind the 16 the Caps have accumulated after Saturday’s 5-3 win against Columbus.

For starters, practice was a brief 50 minutes. There was no screaming, no cursing, no angry whistles. Players were given a set of instructions and carried them out. Even right wing Jaromir Jagr, who normally grabs a seat on the dashers and seems to be elsewhere mentally, wore a broad smile and joined the boys in the corners.

At one end, Olie Kolzig stopped a breakaway and offered just a routine insult as the skater blew past. At the other end, right wing Mike Grier scored, an occasion considered so momentous that practice instantly came to a halt. The entire team broke out in applause and offered congratulations. Grier has been suffering through a horrendous campaign with dozens of opportunities but just one goal — on opening night.

Battaglia set to return

Bates Battaglia, out for four games with a bruised foot, was back on skates yesterday with medical clearance to play. His injured reserve status doesn’t expire until tomorrow, but the Caps don’t play until tomorrow night at the New York Islanders so he will be available if needed.

But Battaglia was a spare yesterday, as were Jeff Halpern and Brian Willsie. If Halpern misses tomorrow night’s game, and the possibility exists that he will, it will be only the second time in his career he has been a healthy scratch. He was scratched Saturday at Columbus, and coaches hate to break up winning lineups.

On the plus side, center Michael Nylander, out all season with a broken leg, and backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier, sidelined with an arthritic hip, both plan to skate today. It will be Nylander’s first time on the ice since training camp.

Berry, Berry good

Defenseman Rick Berry was called up from Portland, Maine, to replace an injured player. Berry has filled that void quite well, playing more than 10 minutes a game paired with rookie Steve Eminger.

But Berry is bringing something else to the table besides good defense. He is putting his size — 6-foot-4, 213-pounds — to good use, lending Jason Doig a hand when it comes to asking opponents to mind their manners. Against Columbus, Berry twice joined a scrum in progress to more than even the sides and prevent hostilities.

Berry’s plus-minus is even, pretty good on a team where the leader is Doig at plus-1. They are the only two blue liners who are not minus defensively.

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