Wednesday, November 8, 2006

If Chris Clark is Dr. Jekyll off the ice — a smooth-talking, confident, considerate easy-going graduate of an Eastern engineering university — he certainly is Mr. Hyde once he laces on skates.

“Yeah, I guess you could say there’s a little Dale Hunter in [Clark],” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said about his team’s captain, comparing him to the fiery, often penalized individual who led the team for a dozen years.

Said defenseman and teammate Brian Pothier, who played for RPI while Clark also played in upstate New York for Clarkson College of Technology: “I hated playing against him. He never stopped working. You’d get an elbow in the mouth while he was trying to outmuscle you for the puck, stuff like that. Aggressive. Exact same player he is now.”

Clark has five goals and nine assists this season, with the latest goal coming in overtime Monday night to beat Ottawa.

“He’s a quiet guy who just has this ferocity when he gets on the ice that you love to see in athletes in contact sports,” McPhee said. “Off the ice he’s a real gentleman; on the ice he has a definite edge.”

And it appears he has found a home. Clark, 30, skates on the right side of center Dainius Zubrus on the first line with Alex Ovechkin on the left. They have a chemistry that none of the three can explain — it’s just there.

“What do they call it, synergy? I think we saw that in the first game where you take a piece out and you got nothing,” said coach Glen Hanlon, referring to the well-intended blunder of taking Clark off the first line for opening night. The error was rectified before the game, a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers, was over.

Said Zubrus: “We tried it one game without Clarkie, and you saw what happened. It didn’t work. I don’t know how to explain it — our line has a little of everything, but you separate us, and we don’t have as much. Once he came back, it all came back quickly.”

Ovechkin, of course, is the multitalented left wing. Zubrus is an underrated center who prides himself on diligent defense. Clark is the puck-chaser who sets an aggressive tone.

The three have 24 of the team’s 47 goals, including four of six game-winners and 45 of the Caps’ 120 points.

Clark, obtained from Calgary in 2004 right after the Flames lost the Stanley Cup in a seventh game, was named captain just before training camp started. Nobody was surprised.

“He’s levelheaded, involves everybody in everything no matter who they are,” Hanlon said. “There’s always substance to what he says on the bench. It’s not ‘We got to work harder.’ It’s ‘This is what we’ve got to do for the next five minutes,’ and he spells it out in a controlled manner.”

But that’s where the pressure comes, preparing to say the right thing at the right time.

“I put that on myself,” Clark said yesterday. “Being captain, you want to say the right thing, do the right thing, and I think about that. I put pressure on myself. I want to do the right thing, lead by example. We have expectations for ourselves this year. We want to make the playoffs. I want guys to follow.”

So far, so good.

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