- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

It’s easy to see why Terry Murray fell in love with the hockey skills of Dainius Zubrus. Blessed with a naturally chiseled physique, the 6-foot-4, 231-pounder is a terrific skater with a deft scoring touch and the unselfishness to contribute on defense.

But since October 1996 when then-Philadelphia coach Murray rushed Zubrus into the lineup four months past his 18th birthday, the powerful Lithuanian has been a mystery.

Zubrus started his second season on the Flyers’ “Legion of Doom” line with Eric Lindros and John LeClair and wound up sixth in the league with a plus-29 defensive rating. But by the following season, he was a fourth-line scrub before being traded to Montreal. A year later, he was on his way to Washington.

“Dainius is a big guy, and he has all the talent,” Capitals center Michael Nylander said. “He’s strong and an unbelievable skater. He has all the tools.”

Halfway through the eight-game preseason schedule that continues tonight against Pittsburgh in Portland, Maine, Zubrus leads the Caps with four goals and six points. But for all his gifts, Zubrus has yet to score 20 goals in a season.

The Caps are hoping Zubrus’ performance this month means that, at 25, he is finally ready to fulfill the potential that made him a regular on those Stanley Cup runners-up Flyers seven years ago and caused the Canadiens and then the Caps to deal established performers to get him.

“We don’t take too much from the exhibition games, but it’s good for Zuby because he’s the type of guy [whose] confidence does affect him,” Caps coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Zubrus’ hot September follows his 12 points in the final 11 games of last season, a year that started with a holdout, continued with a shift from center to wing after the trade for Nylander and included 17 games lost to injury, 14 with a chronically ailing right hand that at its worst can make it too painful to grip a hockey stick.

And yet Zubrus wound up second on the Caps with a plus-15 defensive rating and was their fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs. That is further fuel for the “breakout season” talk that now occurs in every conversation about Zubrus.

“If not now, then when?” Zubrus agreed. “Unlike last year, I’ve been in camp from the start. I’m feeling good. I’ve got the same coach and the same system. All I want is quality ice time, which I’m getting now. If I get that and I don’t produce, I have no one to blame but myself.

“Everything is here. It all depends on me. I want to get over that 20-goal mark, obviously. I want to put a good all-around season together. I want to be a guy who can make a difference. When I’m top of my game, I can make a difference. I’m not in the category yet with guys like [Jaromir] Jagr, [Peter] Bondra and [Robert] Lang.”

True, but Cassidy has shuffled his lines with Zubrus in mind.

“Playing with an offensive guy like Langer who can get him the puck should help Zuby,” Cassidy said. “He should be somewhere around 25 goals. I would love to see him score 30 or 40, but that’s not realistic for a guy whose career-high is 17.

“Zuby can play 20 minutes a night because of his physical makeup. If you have Jagr on one line, Bondra on another and now Zubrus on a third with Lang, now the other team has to decide which one to put their weak pair on against. It creates matchup problems.”

Notes — After being sidelined for a week with a pulled groin, goalie Olie Kolzig will make his preseason debut tonight in the town where he was an AHL All-Star 10 seasons ago. Cassidy said Kolzig will play the entire game if he wants to. …

Backup Sebastien Charpentier said he was feeling much better after a bout of arthritis and should skate at Piney Orchard today, along with defenseman Jason Doig, scratched Thursday with a bad headache. Both should practice tomorrow. … Defensemen J.F. Fortin (back) and Nolan Yonkman (ribs) returned to action yesterday, but Cassidy said neither is close to playing. … Forwards Mel Angelstad and Scott Pellerin, sent to Portland last week, will play for the Caps tonight.

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