- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Peter Bondra should be back in the Washington Capitals’ lineup tonight against Phoenix at MCI Center. The return of the Caps’ all-time leading scorer should give a much-needed boost to a struggling offense facing the Coyotes’ Brian Boucher, who is seeking to become the first NHL goalie in 55 years with four straight shutouts.

With Bondra missing the past four games because of a pulled groin, his teammates had trouble finding the net. The Caps scored six goals in Bondra’s absence while extending their winless streak to six games. Bondra had scored three goals in six games immediately before the injury.

By comparison, the Caps’ healthy forwards (not counting Bondra, the injured Dainius Zubrus or Brian Willsie) managed only 12 goals in the past 10 games as the team went 1-6-3.

“It’s much better than it was last week,” said Bondra of his groin, which tightened up a little causing him to leave practice early. “Hopefully, I’ll be out there tomorrow. I don’t think I’m the solution, but I felt I was playing well before I got hurt. I was using my speed and getting [scoring] chances. It’s always hard not to play, especially when the team is losing.”

Bondra will skate with Bates Battaglia and rookie center Boyd Gordon as coach Glen Hanlon shuffles his lines again. Robert Lang is with center Mike Grier and Brian Sutherby, with Jeff Halpern between Matt Pettinger and Jaromir Jagr. The fourth line will have Trent Whitfield between Kip Miller and Darcy Verot or Stephen Peat.

“Our young guys [Gordon, Sutherby and Pettinger] are playing with world-class players [Bondra, Lang and Jagr, respectively] and that’s important for their development,” Hanlon explained of the season’s latest approach.

Hanlon, still more concerned with the league’s second-worst defense than the lack of offense, made penalty-killing the focus of yesterday’s practice. Washington is 26th in that department.

“We’re not looking to outscore people,” Hanlon said. “Our power play is fourth in the league, but if your penalty kill is 26th, it just nullifies everything. My concern is making sure that we’re solid defensively.”

Of course, all these negatives are to be expected on an 11-25-4-1 team. In the five full seasons since the NHL split into six divisions, the last playoff qualifier in the Eastern Conference had 86 points. The Caps have 27 at midseason, meaning they would likely need 59 in the second half to sneak into the playoffs. That’s virtually impossible considering that no team recorded more than 55 in the first half.

Notes — Maxime Ouellet struggled in both of his starts the past 18 days so the Caps returned the 22-year-old backup goalie to Portland of the American Hockey League and recalled fellow rookie Rastislav Stana, who was 8-3-3 with the Pirates. In posting four shutouts in his last six starts, Stana lowered his goals-against average to a sparkling 1.42. Stana, 23, stunned Detroit and was pounded by Buffalo in his two starts during his five weeks with the Caps last fall. Hanlon plans to play veteran netminder Olie Kolzig in each of the four home games the next eight days. …

Rookie defenseman Steve Eminger should return tonight after missing four games with a bruised thigh. Rookie defenseman Chris Hajt, recalled when Eminger was hurt, will be scratched. … Alexander Semin is expected back today after spending the last four weeks playing for Russia’s World Junior team, but the rookie winger doesn’t figure to play this week as he adjusts to Hanlon’s system. As badly as the Caps need scorers, Hanlon wants the talented 18-year-old to also play “an intelligent, defensive game” if he’s going to see regular action. Semin has three goals and eight points in 18 games for the Caps.

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