- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

The Washington Capitals tonight begin what could be their toughest road trip of the season, one that also could be their most productive in the standings.
The Caps play the suddenly rambunctious Thrashers in Atlanta tonight, are in Raleigh to play Carolina Friday night, in Sunrise, Fla., Saturday night to face the Panthers and close the all-Southeast Division trip Monday night at Tampa Bay.
Washington hits the road with realigned lines, designed yesterday before practice in an effort to jump-start some players who have gone stale and take advantage of others who have plenty of jump in their legs.
"We're looking for more balanced scoring on a regular basis," coach Bruce Cassidy said. In the 10 games before being blanked 2-0 by Montreal on Sunday, the Caps scored 32 goals 21 from five individuals.
Cassidy said some of the realignment came from "a gut instinct" but it also may be the perfect time to get the club rolling before crunch time sets in. There's plenty of time remaining in the season to go back to the drawing board if some of the ideas don't work.
The new lines are (left to right): First Kip Miller, Robert Lang, Jaromir Jagr; second Peter Bondra, Michael Nylander, Dainius Zubrus; third Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, Mike Grier; fourth Brian Sutherby at center with two of three on wing depending on the opponent: Josh Green, Alex Henry, Ivan Ciernik. The defense is unchanged.
"The basic premise is this: Do we need four lines to win or do we need three?" Cassidy said. "We're going to try to play three lines as much as we can in terms of our top nine guys. We made a decision to go with our best guys, give them as many minutes as they can handle and see what happens."
Halpern's checking line, probably the team's most effective unit night-in, night-out, has been reunited. Nylander moves from the first unit to the second, as the Caps seek chemistry between the center and Bondra, who has struggled trying to find someone he can play with successfully since Andrei Nikolishin was traded to Chicago.
Lang moves from the second line to first, where he will work with players he is familiar with from here and Pittsburgh in Miller and Jagr. The fourth line will be a unit in name only; Sutherby will kill penalties and play a defensive role but the others will fill in as needed.
The changes have possible drawbacks. Lang estimated he played only 40 games with Jagr during their years in Pittsburgh, and Nylander and Bondra have never played together.
"It wasn't [bad] chemistry, Jagr played with everybody in Pittsburgh, with Kipper, with Jan Hrdina for a while, with Mario," Lang said. "I played with him for a while then started playing with [Martin] Straka and [Alexei] Kovalev so there was no reason to separate our line."
"The reason behind Nylander and Bondra is that they have not played together," Cassidy said. "Nylander likes to pass the puck, he likes to have it in the neutral zone, bring people to him, give it up. Peter has the one-timer, that's where he's a threat. Maybe there's chemistry there. Zubrus is a big body who can work the corners for them."
The Southeast Division is separated by 17 points top to bottom with two clubs, Florida and Atlanta, trying to move up. The Thrashers have gone 7-3-1 since Bob Hartley, formerly in Colorado, was named coach. The Panthers have started to fade a bit after playing well and Tampa Bay trailed the front-running Caps by only five points before last night.
"I don't want to offend the other teams but [Atlanta] might be our toughest game, and they're playing with confidence," Cassidy said. "We catch Carolina coming back from a road trip and Florida and Tampa [Bay], they're right up there with us. I think it's unrealistic to think we can just show up and win four games. But can we win all four? Yeah, there isn't any reason why we can't."
Cassidy said this is the club's most important trip so far because "this is the one that can move us into that elite category. If we dominate and show we're the best in our division, Toronto and Detroit will be a pretty good measuring stick when we come home."

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