- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

The Washington Capitals have built a reputation as an honest, hard-working team that grinds victories out. Seldom have they had the personnel to speed past opponents or go head-to-head with offensive powerhouses.

The Caps still can’t match up against the league’s top teams, but the club has done little to change the image it is a lunch-bucket brigade that has to outwork opponents to win.

“They skate, they hit, they score and they’re the kind of guys you win with,” general manager George McPhee said yesterday in describing forwards who get secondary billing but are filling first-class roles right now. “We’re not surprised by their contribution. We’re just happy it’s finally happening for these guys. They’ve earned it.”

The players on the checking units are center Brian Sutherby with wings Ben Clymer and Matt Bradley and center Jeff Halpern with wings Matt Pettinger and Brian Willsie.

“We really like what they bring to the rink every night,” McPhee said. “We’re winning fans back because they like the way we play, and these kids are a good example of that.”

All of them, in their own way, are following the footsteps laid down by Halpern, the team captain who leads by example. Halpern, a lifelong Montgomery County resident who grew up with the Caps, knows only one way to play — full speed with plenty of body contact. And after a slow start, he has a goal and nine assists in his last nine games.

Sutherby has spent the past three years or more battling abdominal and groin ailments that put his career in jeopardy for a while. He is finally as close to 100 percent as he can be.

“It’s the best it’s been in three years,” Sutherby said yesterday. “It’s still something I have to work on every day, get here early to exercise and strengthen it, but on the ice I really feel good. It wasn’t a groin pull, it was a weight-bearing thing. When I’d push off it felt like I’d been stabbed with a knife. Anything I did, even getting out of bed, was painful. It’s 1,000 percent better now.”

As a result, so is his game. He had four goals and 13 points in 109 NHL games entering the season. But he has five goals and nine points in 22 games this year. The other four also have shown good improvement during the past 10 games as the club becomes more competitive. Sutherby’s line, for instance, has eight goals and is plus-10 in its last six games.

“Brian missed a lot of development opportunity when he was toughening it out with those injuries,” McPhee said. “He’s one of those kids who will play with pain and not say a word. He actually did that too long when he should have said something, but now he’s finally pain-free. Now he can mentally prepare for the game instead of worrying about whether he could get through it.”

Said coach Glen Hanlon of Sutherby: “He’s back to where he was in junior [in 2001]. I’m just happy because when guys work hard as he has they should be rewarded and now he is. This is likely the longest stretch of games he’s felt healthy.”

The combined offensive totals of any three of the six do not match Alex Ovechkin’s 15 goals, but they have different roles than the rookie wing.

“They all kind of play the same way — bang, crash, in your face,” Hanlon said. “I think all their goals were scored within [the crease], many of them just hard-working goals. I like it because it’s what we’re all about — simple hockey played to perfection.”

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