- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The Washington Capitals open their annual October tour of NHL cities minus two defensemen who were fixtures during the club’s first two games this season.

Brendan Witt was sidelined with a facial injury after he crashed headfirst into the rear boards nine minutes into the first period of a 4-3 loss to Atlanta Saturday night. John Gruden is out with a badly pulled groin.

Gruden was placed on seven-day injured reserve, joining center Michael Nylander, who broke a leg during training camp. J.F. Fortin, one of the Caps’ final cuts in training camp, was called up to fill Gruden’s spot on defense.

Washington opens its six-game swing tonight in Toronto and visits Montreal tomorrow night. The Caps are in Dallas Friday night and St. Louis Saturday night. They move on to Ottawa on Oct.23 and back to Toronto on Oct.25. The long road trip is the result of the Washington International Horse Show at MCI Center.

Actually, a six-game trip isn’t so bad. Last year at this time the Caps were on an eight-game swing in which they went 3-4-1.

Gruden is coming off a horrible night against the Thrashers where he was minus-4 defensively, on the ice for all four Atlanta goals. He was plus-2 in the opener against the New York Islanders, a game in which the 33-year-old scored his first NHL goal.

“He shouldn’t have played at all against Atlanta,” said general manager George McPhee. “His groin was really bothering him.”

Witt was in pursuit of Atlanta forward Ron Petrovicky when he tripped over someone else’s skate and went headfirst into the boards. He was down for several minutes and unconscious for at least part of that time before he was assisted off the ice. He did not return but the Caps’ 1-0 lead quickly vanished as the Thrashers took over.

“There may be a facial injury from the past,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They think it’s an old broken bone in his face, in the nasal area. I would guess he’s probably going [to miss] a week, be back Friday.”

It leaves Washington painfully short of experienced defensemen. Sergei Gonchar played in his 600th game Saturday night and Witt is two games shy of 500. Next on the experience list is Jason Doig with 95 NHL games and Gruden has 83. Two defensemen on the roster, Steve Eminger and Josef Boumedienne, have less than 20 league games apiece.

“Joel Kwaitkowski and Gonchar have been OK together but maybe we’ll have to split them up,” Cassidy said. “We’ll probably have to put Kwaitkowski, Doig and Goncher each with one of the new guys.”

There may be problems with that scenario. Gonchar, one of the top offensive defensemen in the league, needs to have confidence in his partner if he is to roam freely and take pot shots from unexpected angles.

Washington hopes to find the right lineup to bounce back from Saturday’s loss. The Caps seemed to be playing well against the Thrashers before Witt’s injury and then the bottom fell out.

“We got away from our [objectives],” Cassidy said. “We had a meeting this morning, we showed some clips. Neutral zone turnovers, we had seven against the Islanders and one resulted in a scoring chance. It was more a case of bouncing pucks than anything else. Against Atlanta we had 16 turnovers resulting in three goals and one breakaway. They killed us. That’s why we lost the game.

“We emphasized that, that we were a high risk team too often last year. But once the puck drops, it’s up to the guys to make that decision. Do they want to play high risk or do they want to be safe? So we keep hammering away.”

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