- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

Olie Kolzig has one wish for the rest of what has been a disastrous season: He doesn’t want the Washington Capitals to finish in the NHL cellar.

“I don’t want to finish last,” the goalie said. “If it gives us a better chance at the first pick [in the draft], that’s not my concern. I want to get ahead of Chicago and Columbus, too. This season has been bad enough. We don’t need that on top of everything else that has happened.”

The Caps are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for 28th in the 30-team NHL, one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks and just seven points ahead of the rampaging Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s opponent tonight. The Penguins are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games after an 18-game winless skid and still have three games left with the faltering Caps.

Washington, which has been at its best in March and early April with a 40-21-5-8 regular-season record in those months over the past four years, has lost six of seven games this month. Seven of the Caps’ last 10 games are against teams with no shot at the playoffs, but the Caps have only gotten worse since purging themselves of most of their high-priced players before the trade deadline. Washington lost most of its talent on offense, and the defense, after being stalwart for two months under coach Glen Hanlon’s direction, has caved as well, allowing 19 goals in the last four games, all defeats.

Kolzig only could look at the schedule and lament what might have been for a team that made the playoffs all but three times between 1983 and 2003 and finished with 92 points last year.

“You’re playing with fire when the majority of the first part of your schedule is against tough teams on the road because you can dig yourselves a big hole,” Kolzig said. “You can’t count on overcoming a slow start because of what we had done in the past. [The remaining] schedule would have set us up great for the playoffs, but what can you do?”

Kolzig said the remaining Caps have suffered a natural letdown since last Tuesday’s trade deadline. Eight of the 21 players profiled in the team media guide are no longer with the organization, and two are in the minors. Defenseman Brendan Witt, the only other longtime Cap, described the atmosphere as a bit like training camp because there are so many new guys in the room. And Hanlon couldn’t disagree as he tries to balance playing time among his lines and defensive pairs more than most coaches.

“We’re trying to give everybody an opportunity to feel a part of it,” Hanlon said. “We want them to work hard and play physically, but we’re not putting tremendous pressure on them to execute the system. We want them to, but [Western Conference power] Vancouver has been playing [a system] for four years, and they still have issues with people.”

Notes — Rookie Maxime Ouellet, 2-3-1 with a 3.12 goals-against average, was recalled from Portland (Maine) of the American Hockey League to back up Kolzig at least for tonight because Sebastien Charpentier aggravated his chronically ailing hip in Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Atlanta. The injury kept Charpentier out for three months, but surgery seemed to solve the problem, and he was able to start five of the last 10 games. Ouellet is 11-27-8 with a 2.03 GAA and eight shutouts in 46 games for the Pirates. …

Darcy Verot should return from an upper body injury to center the fourth line tonight, but Trent Whitfield remains sidelined with a similar ailment, and fellow center Dainius Zubrus is out for a third time with a strained chest muscle he first suffered Feb.12 at Carolina. Defenseman Jason Doig is still out with a sprained wrist.

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