- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Washington Capitals are scheduled to get their most physical defenseman back tonight when they play the Stars in Dallas. Meanwhile, coach Bruce Cassidy continues to tinker with line combinations trying to find a more potent mix.

Brendan Witt practiced with the team yesterday and barring unforeseen problems will take his normal spot tonight after missing two games and most of a third with facial injuries.

Witt was injured nine minutes into Saturday night’s game against Atlanta when he went face first into the rear boards while trying to track down an opponent. He was unconscious briefly, but there was no concussion or laceration.

But there was a gaping hole in the Caps’ physical presence, a hole that was made considerably larger when left wing Mike Grier was suspended for Monday night’s game against Montreal. With two of Washington’s more contact-prone players out, the normally mild-mannered Canadiens had little opposition.

Grier was suspended for a game for hitting Toronto’s Robert Reichel with his right elbow as he checked the Maple Leafs player into the boards. Reichel crumpled to the ice but was not seriously injured. Nonetheless, Grier was suspended for striking an opponent’s head.

“In games like the other night when we’re tired and our skill players aren’t creating very much, yeah, we need it,” Cassidy said, referring to Grier’s emotion and not the player’s specific action. “Grier helps in there; Witt helps in there. Maybe we have to use them more, but we’ve tried to go with four lines. You get behind 3-1, it’s like football — you get behind by a couple touchdowns, you got to get away from the run.”

The return of Grier presents a manpower problem. Cassidy had been able to get rookie Alexander Semin into the lineup with Grier out, and the 19-year-old played well in his NHL debut. Cassidy said he would like to keep the Russian in the lineup and probably will take out Brian Willsie or Matt Pettinger to create a hole.

“We have a couple guys struggling right now; we’re going to try to get them going,” the coach said.

Four forwards have been benched periodically during the last three games: Kip Miller, Dainius Zubrus, Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuk. Cassidy indicated it was a message to the team and players.

“One of the things the players wanted was a little more accountability,” Cassidy said. “The guys wanted a signal that they can’t get away with that stuff, so in three of the four games we’ve tried to make the guys accountable.”

The coach said the checking line — Halpern, Konowalchuk and Peter Bondra — was causing the most concern.

“I guess I expected more out of them when they had the puck,” Cassidy said. “They seem to be spending a lot of time chasing pucks, and when they get it, they’re not creating much. Certainly we’re trying to play them against the other teams’ top lines, but there’s more to it than that when you have that much ability.”

Notes — Olie Kolzig returns to goal tonight, trying to get into the winning column against the only NHL team he has never beaten. It is the only chance the goalie will get this season against Dallas; the two teams don’t play again. Kolzig is 0-7-1 with a goals-against of 3.38 against the Stars. …

With defenseman J.F. Fortin demoted to Portland, the Caps have called up Nolan Yonkman as insurance. … The Stars had a run of 238 sellout games including playoffs until Wednesday night against Boston. Club officials said they were about 300 seats shy of a sellout, but that appeared to be a conservative estimate. … Right wing Jere Lehtinen, one of the top defensive forwards in the league for years, has missed two games with back spasms. … The Caps are in St. Louis tomorrow night, also the only meeting of the season.

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