By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
Balance, Glen Hanlon has said repeatedly, is the key component of a fruitful forward line. Yesterday, the Washington Capitals' coach took his own advice and reunited Alex Ovechkin and Dainius Zubrus with right wing Chris Clark.
"It's hard, when they have success, not to play them together," Hanlon said after yesterday's practice at Verizon Center, where the Capitals will host the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in tonight's home opener.
"We need puck chasers on every line," Hanlon added, referring to Clark's unglamorous, yet critical job. "That's what last night really proved."
Hanlon made the move in the aftermath of Thursday night's 5-2 loss at Madison Square Garden. Against the New York Rangers, Ovechkin and Zubrus struggled to adapt to experimental linemate Richard Zednik.
The trio was on the ice for four goals by the Rangers and recorded only four shots on net, three of which came off Ovechkin's stick. Ovechkin's plus-minus rating of minus-4 was the worst of his career.
Hanlon had hoped that putting Zednik, a speedy right wing, with two similar players in Ovechkin and Zubrus would increase the first line's offensive production. But it actually had the opposite effect because it disrupted the delicate chemistry between Ovechkin, a left wing, and Zubrus, a center.
"With Chris out there, I feel like I can be a little bit more aggressive," Zubrus said. "Richard's first instinct is to create offense. Chris tries to read the play before he jumps in and tries to make something happen. I know when I get aggressive that Chris is backing me up because he plays well defensively."
The Ovechkin-Zubrus-Clark line was assembled early last season, and it has been consistently productive. It's successful, Hanlon said, because each player has a clearly defined role. Ovechkin is the risk taker, Zubrus is the defensive conscience and Clark is the physical presence. They combined for 95 goals last season.
"We did well last year, and hopefully we'll do well this year," said Clark, the Capitals' captain. "You want a good mix of offense and defense. Zubie is very good at both. Ovie is unbelievable offensively. Sometimes Ovie has to take chances to get those opportunities. And when he does, me and Zubie sit back just in case."
Chemistry, Ovechkin said, is tough to define. It's either there or not. And there's no question it exists among himself, Zubrus and Clark.
"We understand each other, me and Clarkie and Zubie," Ovechkin said.
Zednik likely will return to the second line, where he will play with left wing Alexander Semin and center Kris Beech.
Capitals Notes: Forwards Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon suffered minor injuries against the Rangers and did not practice yesterday. Wingers Matt Bradley and Matt Pettinger, both of whom did not play in New York, also were absent. Laich, Gordon and Bradley are questionable for tonight; Pettinger is out. General Manager George McPhee said he likely will be forced to recall one, perhaps two, players from Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League this morning to fill out the roster. . . .
Goaltender Olie Kolzig, still fuming about losing to the Rangers, smashed his goal stick over the dasher board yesterday, then whacked it repeatedly against the wall as he stormed off the ice following practice.
"Just blowing off steam," he said later. "We wanted a better result [Thursday] night and it didn't happen."
Asked for his thoughts on Jaromir Jagr being named captain of the Rangers, then scoring 29 seconds in, Kolzig said: "He seems to be comfortable and enjoying his time in New York. I don't know if that was ever the case here. It's too bad that he didn't have that same enthusiasm and exuberance he's showing in New York. Obviously he's showing a different side there, for them to name him captain. Good for him." . . .
Tonight's game will be Carolina's third in four nights.