- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

How minute is the difference between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals this season? Not minute at all. There are light years between the two teams, and the void might get bigger before it gets smaller.

But it didn’t take the Penguins all that long to begin to fix a horrible situation, and there are some inside the Pittsburgh dressing room who feel the Caps can catch up fairly fast.

“Add a few pieces and put them in the right places and they’ll be right there with us,” said veteran right wing Mark Recchi, who has played for four teams over 18 seasons but keeps coming back to the one that drafted him, Pittsburgh. He has won two Stanley Cups.

The right pieces? When general manager George McPhee and coach Ron Wilson arrived in Washington in the summer of 1997, they looked at the roster and thought there might be a decent team hidden there. What they didn’t know was how few changes would be needed.

“As the season went on we realized we might not have to make the major changes we envisioned; we made the big one at the start of the season when we moved Olie [Kolzig] into goal,” McPhee said yesterday. “Then we looked around and let the players sort themselves out; all we did was rearrange the furniture a little, pick up a few veterans and use them to push us to the [Stanley Cup] finals.”

McPhee admits it will take moving vans this time, not simply moving the dining room table to a different corner. The cupboard isn’t bare, but there are a lot of empty spaces.

“Pittsburgh is a few years ahead of us with their plan,” McPhee said. “They missed the playoffs three years in a row [this will be the Caps’ third straight miss]. They’ve had top-five picks for five straight years, where we’ve only had two. We’ll be all right.”

The Penguins have improved 40 points from last season. They are fighting for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Caps are glancing at the other end of the standings to see whether they can hold on to a shot at the No. 1 draft pick.

“To get where we need to go, we need to continue to add to the organization,” McPhee said. “We have a lot of good pieces; now we need some more. A couple pieces we need are important but just a couple. We’ll be aggressive and try to acquire those pieces.”

He refused to discuss what those pieces are or their costs, but it’s obvious — at least one quality center, a skilled right wing and at least two defensemen who can handle the puck without treating it like a live hand grenade. McPhee’s main problem might be to persuade free agents to come to a team lacking in a winning atmosphere.

Pittsburgh, flying high right now with youthful enthusiasm, also needs some of the same parts to stay ahead of the Caps. It is a team with a tradition of suspect defense and now is loaded with highly skilled centers who have nobody to pass to. The Caps have left wings with nobody to play catch with and a suspect defense.

“I don’t think we’re that far behind Pittsburgh because they had a nucleus and then brought in key players to make them a playoff caliber team,” Washington captain Chris Clark said.

“I think that’s all we need, but it might not happen over the summer. Maybe what we don’t need is the best free agent available; maybe what we need is the best free agent for our particular team, the one that best fits our spot. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive guy because he might not be the best fit for the team.”

Washington fans seemingly would be pacified if they had the feeling the club was doing something to improve. McPhee said nothing when the subject was broached, then indicated he hoped it would be a busy summer on the personnel front.

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