- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fifty-three times he had played an NHL game without scoring a goal, but that was all going to change Friday night for Staffan Kronwall.

There he was in a perfect position to score - in only his second contest with his new team, no less. The Washington Capitals defenseman collected the puck inside the left faceoff circle, and he was staring at an empty goal because Colorado netminder Andrew Raycroft had fallen to the ice.

But instead of finding the net, Kronwall’s shot floated a bit too high - and with it, a chance to make a great early impression.

“I think my grandma could have put that one in,” Kronwall said. “It was just one of those where I pulled it from my backhand to my forehand, and I was just going to tap it in. All of a sudden [the puck] stood up, and I got too much of it obviously.”

Kronwall has played 54 NHL games, spread across three seasons, without a goal. Given a new opportunity with the Caps when they claimed him on re-entry waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 26-year-old is fighting to prove he belongs in this league.

He knows there is a small window of opportunity for a player once he is labeled a “journeyman” or “minor league veteran.” Time is short for Kronwall, a ninth-round pick in the 2002 draft. He had been stuck in the American Hockey League, notching seven goals and 25 points in 42 games for the Toronto Marlies this season.

Now he has another chance to establish himself at the highest level.

“It is hard. In the minors, you get used to playing three, four games a week and three games back-to-back,” Kronwall said. “It is different. That was my second game that I’ve played in three weeks [Friday] night. I am just glad to have this opportunity, and I’ve got to make the most of it.”

His new coach can empathize; Bruce Boudreau spent his entire playing career trying to stick in the NHL. Still, that doesn’t mean Boudreau will show him any sympathy.

“It could be tough, but he has to do it,” Boudreau said. “It is no sense to make an excuse - that is what’s given to him. To equate it to my situation, I’d sit for two periods, and then I’d get a shift in the third period. They’d say, ‘Well, you better go score.’ If I said, ‘Oh, I’m a little stiff,’ I wouldn’t be there. You just have to go do it - that’s your job.”

Kronwall partnered with Tom Poti in his first game with the Caps, a 5-1 victory on Feb. 14 at Tampa Bay. On Friday, he skated with Milan Jurcina in a 4-1 home loss to the Avalanche. He was a healthy scratch for Sunday’s 5-2 home win against Pittsburgh.

He has become comfortable with his new teammates and new coaches, but the trickiest part might be learning Boudreau’s system, which can be a radical departure from what players are used to with other franchises.

“I don’t want to say it’s like training camp, but he’s a new guy, and you don’t know how he plays like - offensive, defensive, puck-mover,” Jurcina said. “He’s a good skater and a good player. He moved the puck well and wasn’t caught out of position too often. We have a different system than Toronto, so it is a little bit hard for him. Our system is not that easy to learn.”

By grabbing him on re-entry waivers, Washington will split Kronwall’s salary for the remainder of his time here with Toronto. If he is with the club the rest of the season, the total bill would be about $87,000.

It is an inexpensive peek at a player for whom general manager George McPhee said his pro scouts had an inkling. Still, Kronwall could have a finite amount of time to convince the Caps he belongs because the trade deadline and the return of rookie Karl Alzner from the AHL loom.

Kronwall said he hasn’t had a chance to check out much of the District - he spends most of his free time with fellow Swedes Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander - and he still hasn’t moved everything here from Toronto. But that might be because he’s focused on other things.

“I’ve been rusty,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot more to give than I have so far, but I am also used to playing more regularly. I’m certainly not complaining; I’ve got to make the most of every minute I’m out there.”

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