Clark Brings Finishing Touch

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

Although the playoffs are out of the Washington Capitals' reach, veteran right wing Chris Clark isn't looking at his club's final 15 contests as a countdown, but rather as a prelude.

"We were one of the best teams in the East at the beginning of the season," said Clark, who plans to return from a sprained shoulder tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center. "We were definitely a playoff contender at that point. A lot of that came from our last 15 games, when we went on a roll against some of the best teams."

It remains to be seen whether the injury- and trade-depleted Capitals can duplicate the success they enjoyed late last season when they wrapped up with a 7-4-4 record, including 4-1-0 mark in their final five games. But the mere memory of that finish, which was as impressive as it was improbable, is serving as motivation for a locker room that's in need of some.

"The core guys who were here last year, they know how well we did," Clark added. "We showed we were really a good team. And we want to do it again."

The schedule, however, doesn't cut them any slack, beginning with tonight's visit from the desperate defending Stanley Cup champions, who entered last night's games tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Losers of three of their past four games, the Hurricanes are coming off a four-day break and could have high-scoring left wing Erik Cole (hip injury) back in the lineup.

After Carolina, half of the Capitals' remaining 14 games are against playoff teams and two are against teams fighting for the final berth. Nine are on the road, where they've won exactly once since mid-January, and four are against division leaders.

Clark's return from a six-game absence figures to help. As does getting back center Boyd Gordon, who missed the past two games with a sprained knee. Another boost could come next Thursday in Boston, where starting goaltender Olie Kolzig hopes to return from the knee injury he suffered in practice on Feb. 12.

The simultaneous absence of both Clark, the Capitals' captain, and Kolzig, the club's venerable vocal leader, hasn't been lost on Coach Glen Hanlon.

"When you take out both Clark and Kolzig, it's really a double whammy," Hanlon said. "There's a big void there. It's going to help when they come back in. There's an accountable factor there. It's huge."

Clark won't return to the same lineup he left. The 31-year-old had skated alongside Dainius Zubrus and all-star left wing Alex Ovechkin for nearly two seasons, a dream job for the rugged right wing, who racked up nine more goals (44) than he scored during his five seasons in Calgary.

But the departure of Zubrus at the trade deadline has forced Hanlon to juggle his forward combinations. Hanlon, during Wednesday's practice, had newly acquired Jiri Novotny centering Ovechkin and Alexander Semin; Clark, meantime, was shuffled to the checking line, where he skated with Gordon and Brooks Laich. Whether Clark remains there, or rejoins Ovechkin in the future, remains unclear, particularly with ownership promising an infusion of new players during the offseason.

"Down the road, we're going to have to see," Hanlon said. "I don't know who is coming, I don't know how good they are going to be. For now, Ovechkin and Semin are playing well together.

Clark said he prefers playing with Ovechkin, but his primary focus is helping the Capitals finish strong, regardless of where he plays.

"It's just something that's going to happen until we find another line that clicks the way we did," he said. "It's unusual to have a line that can click for almost two years. And it was awesome that it went that far. We played well together. We had a lot of chemistry. But part of that was having Dainius in the middle."

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