Monday, January 16, 2006

Part of the reason rookie sensation Alex Ovechkin was able to fight his way into the open a little easier Friday night in a 3-2 overtime victory at Anaheim was the presence of Jeff Friesen. More of the same would appear to be forthcoming.

Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon did what he said he didn’t want to do; he broke up the checking line of Brian Sutherby, Matt Bradley and Ben Clymer, the most consistent unit on the team all season. Hanlon made the move because Sutherby is displaying a hoped for — but unanticipated — offensive flare and because he hopes Friesen, sidelined for most of the season with an injury, will do the same.

When the Caps play Wayne Gretzky’s Coyotes today in Glendale, Ariz., Sutherby will center Friesen and Brian Willsie on the second line. Jeff Halpern moved into Sutherby’s old spot between Bradley and Clymer.

Sutherby scored nine goals in the first half of the season after netting four in his first 102 NHL games. That puts him second on the team among centers (Dainius Zubrus has 10), so the decision was made to take him off the lunch-pail line with Bradley and Clymer.

But there is more to it than that. Friesen is, like Ovechkin, a left wing. Almost from the start this season, the opposition has been able to limit Washington’s offense when it is able to bottle up its most consistent source — Ovechkin. The 20-year old rookie has 30 goals, more than a quarter of the 119 the team has scored, and has had a hand in 46.2 percent of the team’s goals.

Friesen is able to provide some relief, and Sutherby figures to as well. A more productive second line could force opposing teams not to focus solely on stopping Ovechkin.

“[Friesen] looked good,” Hanlon said yesterday from Phoenix. “He got a couple chances that I assume when he gets a few games under his belt, they’ll be in [the net]. You score 20 or more goals for all those years, and you don’t suddenly forget. He’ll start to score.

“Now, what this does is give us a really top notch second left wing, and that means I can do some things with Ovechkin to get him away from defenders. It also makes it easier for us when teams are trying to match up against us.”

To give Sutherby some help on his new scoring line, he will be joined by Friesen, who played in his first game Friday night since leaving with a groin injury Nov. 6. The Caps acquired Friesen, who has scored more than 20 goals five times, from New Jersey late in training camp.

Friesen has been troubled by a groin problem from the moment he arrived. It became too painful to play in early November, and a specialist finally diagnosed the problem as a sports hernia. Friesen had surgery Dec. 8, and he played Friday against Anaheim, one of his former teams, two weeks ahead of schedule.

There probably will be another lineup change today. Defenseman Steve Eminger was injured just before the end of the game against the Ducks when he appeared to catch his right foot in a rut, and he crumpled immediately. He needed assistance to leave the ice and could not put any pressure on the leg. The Caps had no immediate comment on his condition.

The Caps also might give backup goalie Brent Johnson a second consecutive start after he allowed just two goals in 63 minutes against Anaheim. He has not started back-to-back games since the middle of November.

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