By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
TAMPA, March 26 -- Jeff Halpern heard the rumors, but that didn't make the news any easier to digest when he was traded from the Dallas Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning last month.
In a matter of moments, Halpern, a Potomac native and former captain of his hometown Washington Capitals, was headed from the Stars, who likely will make the playoffs, to the struggling Lightning. The shock lasted several days.
"Getting into the playoffs and getting a chance to win a Stanley Cup is everything," Halpern after practice Wednesday. "That's a big part of why I went to Dallas. So another season without getting that chance was a tough pill to swallow.
"But on the flip side of that, I've got new challenges and new opportunities here. I'm trying to prove myself again."
Doing that Thursday night will mean doing serious damage to his former team's hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in five years.
In the 13 games in which he has suited up since the Lightning acquired him, goaltender Mike Smith and left wing Jussi Jokinen for star center Brad Richards and goaltender Johan Holmqvist, Halpern has been Tampa Bay's best forward, registering seven goals and 15 points, giving him 17 goals and 39 points for the season. Richards, interestingly, has just two goals and nine points for Dallas.
Although Halpern struggled to pinpoint a reason for his sudden offensive upturn, this much is certain: The 31-year-old center is not planning to take it easy on his former team when the Lightning hosts NHL leading scorer Alex Ovechkin (61 goals, 107 points) and the Capitals on Thursday.
"That's one of the things you play for when you're on a team in Tampa's situation -- being a spoiler," said Halpern, who played six seasons in Washington, where he was a fan favorite because of his local roots and feisty play. "I'll play hard tomorrow, that's for sure. I might have a little extra care about what goes on in that game."
The role of spoiler is one he's learning to relish. On Tuesday, Halpern had a goal and two assists to help the Lightning beat Florida, 3-1, and deal the Panthers' playoff hopes a serious setback.
The Capitals have won six of their last seven games and are two points behind the Boston Bruins in the race for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with five games remaining.
Goaltender Cristobal Huet is expected to get his fifth start in six games for Washington, and defenseman John Erskine likely will return to the lineup after missing six games because of a head injury.
As for Halpern, it will mark only the second time he has faced the franchise he grew up cheering for from the stands at Capital Centre, the one that gave him his start in the NHL as an undrafted free agent and made him captain in the summer of 2005. He signed a four-year, $8 million contract with the Stars the following summer.
When Dallas visited Verizon Center in November 2006, Halpern was overwhelmed with emotion and did not register a point. It was "one of the worst games I've played in my career," he said that night.
He doesn't anticipate that happening again.
"It was more than I thought it was going to be, walking into that building and playing that game," Halpern said. "I'd like to think the second time around I'll be a little more comfortable and will play a little more like I want."
Halpern's father, Mel, will attend a game in Tampa for the first time since the trade. Halpern also hoped to have dinner with Capitals goaltenders Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson, two of his close friends, Wednesday night.
"He had a great situation in Dallas, a team that's considered a contender out West," said Kolzig, who was Halpern's roommate on the road. "Now he's with a team that might be better in the future but is out of it now. So it's tough for him. But he's obviously made the most of it."
Playing mostly with wingers Mathieu Darche and Michel Ouellet, Halpern has rediscovered his scoring touch despite some injury problems. He missed one game because of an abdominal strain and has been unable to take faceoffs.
Asked for his thoughts on Washington's turnaround this season, Halpern said he is not surprised.
"You look at the talent in that room, it was bound to break out at some point," he said. "I don't see many teams better than them in the East. It's just a matter of making the playoffs."
Halpern, ironically, could have a say in whether that happens or not.