- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Washington Capitals hope they don’t pick up where they left off before the Olympic break when their 12-day mini-vacation ends with the resumption of practice at 10:30 a.m. today at Piney Orchard.

The season resumes Tuesday night at Toronto against a Maple Leafs team Washington has beaten two out of three times this year. It will be Washington’s first game since losing 6-3 to Pittsburgh on Feb. 11, the Caps’ eighth loss in their last 10 games.

In some ways, what will happen today defines the season the Caps are suffering through. The team is not quite sure how many players will be available for practice — at least three have been out with injuries, and their availability won’t be known until the team hits the ice, and another three were participants at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

The Olympians will not be there for sure. German goalie Olie Kolzig is spending time with his family; Russian left wing Alex Ovechkin, with five goals in six games, is preparing to play against Finland tomorrow in a semifinal, while defenseman Ivan Majesky will have a few days off before returning to Washington after his Slovak team lost in the quarterfinals.

Right wings Matt Bradley (bruised foot) and Chris Clark (groin) and defenseman Steve Eminger (sprained ankle) hope to work out with their teammates today, but there are no guarantees. Eminger has been out since Jan. 13 and the others for shorter time periods while a parade of minor league hopefuls played. Washington has lost 145 man-games to injury and used a league-high 34 skaters plus another four goaltenders.

What started as the great experiment to rebuild a team after the massive salary dump of 2003-04 has sputtered to a crawl. The club, already woefully thin in experienced players, has been decimated by injuries and at times let down by performances by veterans.

It has been a trying season, and it is about to get worse. The team played the first two-thirds of the season, 56 games, in a leisurely 130 days. It plays the last 26 games in 50 days, a game every other night, and 12 of its last 15 games are on the road.

Even the one purely positive aspect of the campaign had started to slow just before the Olympic break. Ovechkin, the first pick overall in 2004, had been nursing a groin injury in January, and it affected his record-setting play. But it was more than that. The 20-year-old was exhausted physically and perhaps also mentally.

Going into the Olympics, Ovechkin played 55 games for the Caps, three more than he had ever played in a full season. He was skating like an uncontrollable dynamo, trying to do too much to justify, in his mind, the faith others had in him for picking him so high and to help his offensively challenged team.

The desire to do well, the media pressure heaped on him to win rookie of the year honors and his own worries about competing for Russia in the Olympics all took their toll. He has only three goals in his last 10 NHL games, including a streak of five with no goals at all. Nonetheless, he still individually accounts for nearly 25 percent of the Caps’ goal-scoring with 36.

One of the things the Caps coaching staff has been trying to teach the wing is to budget his time better, to take advantage of down periods so he does not become exhausted. The player acknowledges there is a problem in that area, but he is young and single, and as a budding superstar he also faces outside demands on his time.

Washington yesterday continued to sign some of its potential free agents, coming to terms with defensemen Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir. Heward, who played the last three seasons in Switzerland, has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Caps. Muir was billed as an offensive threat but has just four goals (none since Dec. 1), and his only contribution during the past 15 games has been a pair of assists.

The Caps previously signed Clark on Feb. 4, and a two-year contract extension for Kolzig was announced Feb. 11.

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