- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

This is the time of the year when teams that like to view themselves as contenders prefer to have playoff berths already locked up. That way, virtually all their attention can be turned to the trading deadline 17 days away.

The Washington Capitals were inching toward that goal a week or so ago but now find themselves in the midst of a battle for survival. Going into last night's games, they were a division leader which gets home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs but only had a four-point cushion over the ninth-place team in the conference.

The Caps have lost two straight and seen a divisional lead turn into a race. The Tampa Bay Lightning picked up a point with a tie against the Carolina Hurricanes to creep within a point in the Southeast Division.

Washington's tour last week through the Southeast, the weakest division in the NHL, was a disappointment. The Caps lost to Carolina, a team in the process of selling off its best assets, and then played at half-speed and lost to Tampa Bay, a team that had to pinch itself over its good fortune.

Thursday night's game against Toronto was one of those management wanted to use to measure the team. The second measuring stick comes tonight against Detroit. The Caps were clubbed 6-2 by the Maple Leafs, and the only good thing Washington has going for it tonight is that Scotty Bowman has retired and no longer coaches the Wings.

"It's amazing how quick your attitude can change with a win," coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday after the Caps appeared to take their frustration out on each other during a grinding one-hour practice. "We were intense in practice. It showed the guys cared about what happened."

But the immediate chore might have gotten tougher. Defenseman Ken Klee, who is having one of the best years of his career, left practice early with what was thought to be an ankle or leg injury. No Caps official was available last night to say whether he would play today, but it appeared doubtful.

After the embarrassment Thursday night, Cassidy blasted some of the high salary players without mentioning names. He said basically the same thing yesterday, again not mentioning names, but went out of his way to praise Jaromir Jagr.

"There were certain guys in the lineup [Thursday night], Jagr being one of them, that elevated his game," Cassidy said. "The same in Tampa where he fought through this stuff. This time of the year you can see his game going up, whereas other guys are kind of stagnating. Maybe it's not so much they're not playing well, it's just that the rest of the league recognizes what time of the year it is and they've stepped up their game. We haven't matched that intensity."

Even though it appears Jagr has risen above many of his teammates recently in desire and output, Cassidy said there are no plans to increase his ice time beyond his 21 minutes and change.

"When you kill five to six penalties a night and he's not a penalty-killer, now you've got a 50-minute game," he explained. "To play him more than half the game in those minutes, I don't know if it can work. [If we get] more power plays, I think he would have 25 minutes if we got five to six power plays a night, but that doesn't happen."

Many of the questions yesterday concerned the second line Peter Bondra, Michael Nylander and Dainius Zubrus and the contention it has not jelled as a unit. Cassidy acknowledged that and said people might be shuffled again.

Zubrus, who missed all of training camp in a holdout, admitted there were problems and time might not be the answer.

"We don't need more time. We need to work together," he said. "Until we start working together, on the same page, nothing good is going to happen."

And he took umbrage with the charge that some players were not earning their keep.

"I make a lot of money [$1.4[ThSp]million], but I want to earn it. I want to make a difference. I want to step up," Zubrus said. "We have a good team here. We shouldn't even be worried about whether we're going to make the playoffs. We should be there already; we should be gaining momentum right now. We're back where we have to battle for everything again, but that's OK. We've done that before. We make it a little bit harder on ourselves, that's all."

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