- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

Sergei Gonchar is recovering faster than expected from a separated shoulder and plans to return to the Washington Capitals immediately following the All-Star break.

The defenseman yesterday participated in all noncontract drills in practice for the first time since being injured Jan.23 at Florida and expects to return Feb.12 when the Caps visit Carolina.

“I was surprised,” Gonchar said of his rapid recovery. “They expected me to be out for at least a month. I am going ahead of schedule, so that’s a good sign.”

Gonchar leads the team and is second in the NHL with 38 assists despite being sidelined the last four games. However, the three-time All-Star has struggled on defense, evidenced by his minus-22 rating.

The 29-year-old Russian has been doing extra skating to maintain his conditioning in hopes of being near his usual playing shape upon his return.

“He will have the All-Star break to recuperate and then we expect him to be pretty much a go when we get back,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said.

That would mean the Caps would be short-handed on defense for only two more games, when they play host to Southeast-division leader Tampa Bay tomorrow and visit Philadelphia on Wednesday before a seven-day break for the All-Star Game.

A possible early return for Gonchar came as good news to a depleted club still stinging from a 6-1 pounding against Vancouver on Saturday at MCI Center. The Caps will be down two top defensemen tomorrow as Jason Doig finishes a two-game suspension for a kneeing incident last week at Carolina.

Washington held an upbeat 1 hour practice yesterday afternoon at Piney Orchard as it tries to move on from the Canucks calamity. In the loss, the Caps yielded four power-play goals, including two on 5-on-3 situations, in an overall listless performance in which they were outshot 40-16.

“We all feel bad about last night,” Hanlon said. “I have to park it myself. You have to be rational. I have to watch [the videotape] a couple times. … I am not big at making blanket statements to teams. I like being very specific and bringing up maybe two or three things. You can’t bring up 10 things.”

Hanlon will talk to the entire team today and have individual meetings tomorrow.

“We sort of looked at our last seven games, and six of them we thought we played quite well,” Hanlon said. “Eventually, you don’t play a good game.”

The Caps had only five healthy defensemen because of Doig’s suspension and were forced to call up defenseman Steve Eminger from their minor league affiliate in Portland, Maine. Eminger, who began the season skating with Brendan Witt on one of Washington’s top two pairs, played in the Pirates’ 2-0 win over Lowell (Mass.) on Friday and was surprised by the promotion.

“I want to make an impression,” said Eminger, the 12th overall pick in the 2002 draft. “It is probably going to be a short-term thing. I will just try to use what I learned in Portland. I have improved my decision-making. Last year, I maybe tried to do too much at times and was maybe out of position at times.”

Eminger played 21 minutes Saturday night and was usually paired with Witt. He is considered part of a group of young players, including forwards Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby, who are forecast to be the Caps’ core in the near future. All three began the season in Washington, but each was sent down as the season slipped away. They are getting extended playing time in the American Hockey League.

“The three of us went down there pretty much for the year,” said Eminger, who is in his second season of professional hockey after playing juniors in his native Canada. “It’s all about development. I am only 20 years old. I still have to develop my overall game. Portland gave me a better chance to play in all situations.”

Note — Forward Stephen Peat missed yesterday’s practice with the flu after missing Saturday’s game for the same reason.

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