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Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page E07


at Pittsburgh

Today, 3

Capitals' Mel Angelstad, 32, moves in on Karel Rachunek, goalie Jamie McLennan during his NHL debut after 12 seasons in the minor leagues. (Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)

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Minor league journeyman Mel Angelstad, a favorite among hardcore Washington Capitals and Portland Pirates fans, spent the past 12 seasons fighting -- literally -- to get a crack at the big time. Yesterday, the 32-year-old enforcer was signed by the Capitals and made his NHL debut against the New York Rangers in Washington's home finale.

A left wing who did not play organized hockey until he was 16 years old, Angelstad wore No. 69 and played on a line with Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Roman Tvrdon. Angelstad even skated with the power-play unit in the third period.

"I can't put into words," said Angelstad, who signed a one-way contract, meaning he cannot return to Portland this season. "When I found out . . . I was in tears. I couldn't believe it. I think my heart rate was like about 210 when I went out there."

Angelstad has played for 10 minor league organizations in five leagues, including a brief stint in a roller-hockey league. He's spent the past three years in Portland, where his biggest responsibility has been to protect the Capitals' top prospects.

Angelstad's pursuit of making the NHL has come at a high cost, physically at least. He once shattered his hand while throwing a punch and has broken his nose three times. Twice Angelstad has exceeded 400 penalty minutes in a season.

"I've been hoping, wishing, praying for a long time," Angelstad said. "With the labor dispute coming up, I didn't know if a guy my age would ever get another chance to play here."

Owner Ted Leonsis had received numerous e-mails in recent days from fans pleading for the team to give Angelstad his shot, a team official said. Angelstad became the 51st player the Capitals have used this season and the 11th player to make his NHL debut in a Capitals uniform.

"He was so emotional when he came here," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "It's a great story." . . .

Because of injury and illness, both teams had only 17 skaters available to play instead of the usual six defensemen and 12 forwards. . . . New York Rangers captain Mark Messier (sore right elbow) did not make the trip to Washington for his team's final game, perhaps his last. . . .

Jaromir Jagr (strained right hip flexor) also was not in uniform for the Rangers. . . . Washington defenseman Josef Boumedienne missed yesterday's game with the flu. . . . Defenseman Jakub Cutta and center Brooks Laich have been returned to Portland of the AHL.

-- Tarik El-Bashir

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