- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

With half their 82 games to play, it's hard to designate a mid-January contest as crucial for the Washington Capitals. However, tonight's game at Carolina is a fairly significant barometer.
The Hurricanes are two points behind the second-place Caps in the Southeast Division race, but they are the defending Eastern Conference champions and remain division favorites despite a 3-5-2 record in their past 10 games. And in winning the 2002 Southeast title, Carolina took the prize that had belonged to Washington the two previous years.
"These are the type of games that are almost like playoff games," said Caps center Jeff Halpern, who had a goal and an assist in Monday's 2-2 tie with the New York Rangers. "Not to take anything away from [surprise Southeast leader] Tampa Bay, but Carolina has proven itself."
Caps coach Bruce Cassidy said tonight's game "definitely isn't just one of 82." With the Hurricanes struggling, "we've got to get on them early and get them doubting themselves."
The game is also the first of three in four days and 10 in 17 days all against conference rivals for the Caps after a season-high five-day break that followed a stretch where they got at least one point in 10 straight games.
"The break's nice to recharge the batteries a little, but I would rather have been playing," Halpern said. "That's the fun part of being in the NHL. And when you're doing well, you want to keep going out there."
The break was beneficial for right wing Peter Bondra, who missed the last three games with the flu. Bondra practiced full-bore the last three days and is recovered, as is defenseman Calle Johansson, who had a less serious case of the bug earlier this week.
"I used the break to get my strength and energy back," said Bondra, whose goal in Washington's 2-1 victory at Carolina on Oct.17 was his sixth in six games against the Hurricanes the last two seasons. "You never get a night off against Carolina. It's going to be 1-1 and be decided on special teams. I'm looking at it as the biggest game of the year."
Washington has been winning despite little offense from its biggest guns. Bondra, the team's all-time leading goal scorer, had four goals and no assists in 10 games before getting sick. Five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr had three goals and four assists in the last 12 games. And Robert Lang, the big offseason acquisition, was virtually silent with one goal and one assist in the last 13 games. Those numbers correspond with a power play that ranks 23rd and has clicked just seven times in the past 19 games.
"We're all frustrated with the power play because we have so much talent, but a lot of the guys are used to being the guy running it," Cassidy said. "Maybe splitting them up is the way to do it. Guys aren't happy that they're not on the power play all the time, but they're happy when they are the guy. I've always believed in putting your five best guys out there, but it hasn't worked as well we would like, so we'll go to Plan B."
Jagr, who has averaged 99 points during his 11 full non-strike seasons, is on pace for 72. Bondra, who averaged 41 goals the past seven seasons, is on pace for 30.
Lang's 56-point pace is only slightly below his typical production, but the Caps were expecting much more from his reunion with former Pittsburgh teammate Jagr.
"We have a lot of talent," Bondra said. "We just have to put it together. I believe it's going to work. It's just a matter of confidence and a little bit of luck, too. We're creating chances. We just have to put the puck in the net."
Or as Halpern put it, "Not that our top guys aren't playing well, but when they take it to the next level and start taking games over, that's when we can really get on a roll."

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