- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Robert Lang isn’t exactly the likeliest contender for the scoring title.

The Washington Capitals center joined the NHL at age 21 but was released by three teams in six years. He scored only 28 goals in 201 games. Things got so tough he went back to the Czech Republic for a season to regain his confidence.

When Lang finally established himself in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was overshadowed by superstars Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

Not anymore.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, Lang trails the Vancouver Canucks’ Markus Naslund by one point in the scoring race with 62. His 31 power-play points lead the league. He ranks in the top five in the league in goals (25) and assists (37), a feat matched only by Naslund.

And on Sunday the 33-year-old Lang will skate in his first All-Star Game.

That game is old hat to Jagr, who shrugged about being selected for the 12th time. For Lang, it’s a thrill. He is happy to give up a weekend to play.

“It’s exciting,” said Lang, who is taking his wife, child and in-laws to St. Paul, Minn., for the festivities. “I’ve watched guys like Jags play in the All-Star Game, and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun. No one is there to hit anyone. It’s a wide-open game where they try to score as many goals as possible. It’s a game for the fans to watch the best players in the league score.”

And after all these years, Lang is one of the best.

The 15 first-time All-Stars this season have an average age of 26 — only Lang and Minnesota goalie Dwayne Roloson are over 30. The long wait for recognition just makes joining the Jagrs, Messiers and Sakics all the sweeter.

“Of course I wish this had happened sooner, but things have worked out for the best,” Lang said.

That hasn’t been the case this season for the Caps, who have been at the bottom of the Southeast Division all year after being a playoff regular for two decades.

Lang started hot with three goals and three assists in the first five games and never cooled off except for a four-game drought to close out December. Lang was the NHL’s offensive player of the month in November, when he tied a franchise record with a 16-game scoring streak. And he has scored in all but one of the last 11 games, including five points in the five games since his linemate and buddy Jagr was traded.

“The way I saw it, Langer was carrying Jags,” Caps winger Mike Grier said. “Last year [Lang’s first in Washington], Langer would wait for the puck to come to him. This year, he’s the one with the puck all the time.”

Lang’s best previous season was 2000-01, when he scored 32 goals and 80 points for the Penguins. That performance prompted the Caps to sign him to a five-year, $25 million contract in 2002.

Coach Glen Hanlon won’t say he’s shocked Lang is on pace to score 39 goals and 96 points. However, with the Caps having the slimmest of chances to make the playoffs, the coach would like to see his top player lead the NHL in scoring, joining a group that’s much more elite than those headed to St. Paul.

Of the 40 players who have won the scoring title, 35 are in the Hall of Fame, and three others — Jagr, Colorado’s Peter Forsberg and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla — are active.

“It would be a reward for a guy who’s having a great year within our team concept,” said Hanlon, who plans to give Lang extra power-play time to help him accomplish the feat.

Notes — Backup goalie Rastislav Stana was sent down to Portland on Sunday to prepare for this weekend’s AHL All-Star Game. The 24-year-old Slovakian, 8-3-3 with a 1.42 goals-against average and five shutouts in 15 games, was the only Pirate selected. Fellow rookie Maxime Ouellet was recalled to back up Olie Kolzig tonight against Tampa Bay and tomorrow in Philadelphia. … Sebastien Charpentier, who began the year as Kolzig’s backup before being sidelined by an arthritic hip, skated before yesterday’s practice. It was the first time on the ice for Charpentier since undergoing arthroscopic surgery last month.

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