- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — His last-place team was coming off two ugly defeats and had skated through another scoreless period. Bruce Cassidy had seen enough. If his Washington Capitals were going to lose again to the Columbus Blue Jackets — the Western Conference’s worst team — they were going to go down with their big guns together.

So Cassidy yanked role player Kip Miller off the top line Saturday night and put Peter Bondra, the franchise’s all-time scorer, alongside the hot duo of center Robert Lang and right wing Jaromir Jagr.

The move went against conventional NHL thinking because it left the Caps with only one player with more than three goals on any other line. But it also paid quick dividends.

Bondra, who had scored seven goals (two at even strength) in the first 23 games, pumped in three (two at even strength) in the final two periods in Columbus while Jagr had a goal and two assists, and Lang a helper as the Caps won 5-3.

On Tuesday night on Long Island, Jagr had a goal and an assist, Lang two assists and Bondra one as the Caps beat the New York Islanders 4-1 to forge their first winning streak of the season.

“As a coach, you go by your instincts,” Cassidy said. “The puck was ending up in Kip’s hands a lot and he wasn’t shooting, so put a shooter there. It worked in Tampa. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket, but if we can get one line scoring consistently, maybe we start to get a second going and all of a sudden we’re more of a threat to win.”

Whether by coincidence or as a consequence, the Caps also have gotten goals the past two games from center Brian Sutherby — now skating with Miller — and defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski. Sutherby had scored once in 17 games, Kwiatkowski once in 24 games. And each score proved to be the one that broke the home team’s spirit.

“That line needed some speed on the left side, and Peter wasn’t really producing on his line,” general manager George McPhee said in endorsing Cassidy’s bold decision. “And when Kip plays with Jaromir, he’s always focused on getting the puck to him. Kip [a goal and an assist] has played better since he got off that line.”

Five-time NHL scoring champion Jagr has 20 points in the last 12 games, and Lang’s brilliance has lasted even longer. The NHL’s Offensive Player of the Month for November has 25 points in the last 16 games and can tie Hall of Famer Mike Gartner’s franchise record of scoring in 17 straight tonight on the road against Stanley Cup champion New Jersey.

“Maybe the Columbus game gave me and the whole team the little bit of confidence we needed,” Bondra said. “And there’s much more room for me to skate playing with those guys because some teams really pay so much attention to Jags.”

Lang noted that when a team is struggling, it’s easy to defend if its top guns are on different lines, so he thought putting Bondra with him and Jagr made perfect sense.

“I don’t see why anyone thought it would be a big deal,” Lang said. “Bonzai likes to shoot, Jags likes to handle the puck up and down the ice and I just find my holes.”

Lang had never before found so many holes during his 10-year career. If he were to maintain the pace of his streak for the season, he would score 128 points, 48 more than the career-high he set with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01.

“It’s like you’re in a zone,” Lang said. “You’re just confident. You do something and you know it’s going to be good. And the better you play, [the more] you’re going to help the team.”

There’s no denying that. Washington, an ugly 1-7-1 when Lang’s streak began, is a respectable 7-8-0-1 since. If the Caps can beat the suddenly slumping Devils (0-2-2 since a 13-game unbeaten tear) tonight, they’ll have won three straight for the first time since Jan.10-13 and three in a row on the road for the first time since March19-23, 2002.

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