- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The Washington Capitals begin the post-All Star break portion of their season tonight at Carolina with one of their leading defensemen, Sergei Gonchar, not positive he can return to the lineup and another, Jason Doig, sure to be public enemy No.1.

Gonchar, the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman, believes his left shoulder is sufficiently recovered from the separation he suffered Jan.23 for him to play tonight.

“I had some contact [in practice], but not as much as I would like,” said Gonchar, who wanted to see how the shoulder would hold up under the stress of serious contact. “My shoulder is a little tight, but there’s no sharp pain like there was before. The first couple of times I tried to skate with the team, my shoulder was hurting on every wrist shot, but now I’m shooting fine. If I don’t play [tonight], I’ll play on Friday [at Nashville].”

Washington coach Glen Hanlon doesn’t want Gonchar to play unless he’s 100 percent.

“Gonch was still having trouble shooting yesterday,” Hanlon said. “I’m not going to put him in the lineup with a shoulder injury. When he’s ready to play, we’ll likely give him one more game [to rest] just to really be extra careful. If he’s 100 percent, he’ll play his normal [NHL-high 27:56]. Some people we break in slowly, Gonch isn’t one of them.”

When the Caps last visited Raleigh on Jan.29, the burly Doig sidelined Kevyn Adams with a hit that earned him a two-game suspension. Adams remains out with an ailing knee, and Doig is sure to hear from the crowd at RBC Center and feel the wrath of the Hurricanes.

“I’m expecting guys to take runs at me to try to make up for what happened, but I’m not too concerned,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Doig, who leads the Caps with 90 penalty minutes. “I can handle myself. I wasn’t trying to hurt him. I was trying to make a run at him, and I kind of stuck my knee out and hit him. It was more of a trip than anything else.”

The Caps are 13-31-5-2 against the rest of the NHL but 4-0 against the Hurricanes, having outscored them 18-4. Washington can close within three points of fourth-place Carolina in the Southeast Division with a victory tonight.

“We haven’t positioned ourselves to where [division games] are really four-point games,” Hanlon said. “We’re still at the point where we want to win for the sake of winning.”

Center Dainius Zubrus, who joins left wing Peter Bondra in having scored three goals in the four games against Carolina (two fewer than All-Star center Robert Lang), said he doesn’t think the Caps have any special magic against the Hurricanes.

“They came at us real hard the last two games, but [goalie] Olie [Kolzig] and our power play won the games for us,” Zubrus said. “They’re still a hard team to play against.”

The Caps have no hope of making the playoffs, but they can point to a contender-type 6-5-1-1 record in their past 13 games — an accomplishment Doig credits to the players’ belief in Hanlon’s positive message and emphasis on defense.

“We have made some strides, but we have so many things that I feel that we have to cure and work on,” Hanlon said. “I’m not sure we’re past the point of establishing a real identity. Our practice habits, the tempo of the drills, have started to improve. The plan that we had when we took over [Dec. 10] seems to be effective.”

Notes — With rookie Maxime Ouellet back up from Portland, reserve goalie Sebastien Charpentier stayed off the ice although he didn’t suffer any ill effects from his first practices in nearly three months. … Winger Brian Willsie skated for a third straight day and is scheduled to play for the first time in six weeks Sunday at Chicago.

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