Washington Capitals Captain Chris Clark Looks to Do His Part

Chris Clark, who scored 30 goals in 2006-07, has none this season.
Chris Clark, who scored 30 goals in 2006-07, has none this season. (By Al Bello -- Getty Images)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

SAN JOSE, Nov. 23 -- Chris Clark thought missing most of last season because of injuries was the hardest part.

He was wrong.

The most difficult stretch of his nine seasons in the NHL, it turns out, has been struggling to rediscover his scoring touch after missing all but 18 games a year ago, while, at the same time, attempting to be the leader of a young Washington Capitals team with big aspirations.

Through the first quarter of the season, Clark has two assists, has been scratched once and has seen his role and playing time diminish. The 32-year-old team captain is tied for second-to-last on the team in points and plus-minus (minus-4), and probably will be relegated to fourth-line duty -- again -- as Washington attempts to salvage a road trip derailed by back-to-back losses to Los Angeles and San Jose.

Clark and the Capitals (11-6-3) close out a four-game Western Conference road trip Monday against Minnesota (11-6-1), and likely will be without top defenseman Mike Green, first-line right wing Alexander Semin and second-line center Sergei Fedorov. The Wild is averaging a paltry 2.33 goals per game (28th) but has one of the league's premier goalies in Niklas Backstrom (.933 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average).

"This is way worse than being hurt," Clark said after practice at HP Pavilion, where the Capitals were thumped, 7-2, by the NHL-leading San Jose Sharks on Saturday. "I'm out there, I'm feeling pretty good, but pucks aren't going in."

Clark, who missed eight games with an ear laceration and 56 with a groin tendon strain last season, said he experienced some pain -- and apprehension -- in the season's first weeks. But in the past month, he said he's been at full speed and is no longer worried about re-injuring his leg. He's still searching for his timing, though.

"I've felt great, I've been able to open up, I can do what I want," Clark said. "But I'm struggling to get the puck on my stick, get off a shot, everything. Things are not natural at this point."

Clark's struggles have created a problem he did not anticipate. He is a vocal leader who, in the past, was not shy about pulling aside a struggling teammate. But that's not so easy anymore.

"It's hard to get other people going if you're not doing those things yourself," he said. "I'm saying in my head, 'It's me, too, so how can I say this?' "

Clark's slump has also put Coach Bruce Boudreau in a difficult position. While the coach would be justified in benching Clark, Boudreau said he believes the only way to help his captain rediscover the scoring touch that helped him notch 30 goals in 2006-07 is to give him more playing time, not take it away.

Because of that, Boudreau has put Clark in the lineup in 19 of the team's 20 games, and in each of the past three, given him a healthy amount of time on the power play.

"Sometimes you take ice time away from guys, and sometimes you give them more to see if that will work," Boudreau said. "Obviously, he's not used to having the numbers that he has. It's a work in progress."

Clark admits that his frustration level is high. But he remains hopeful that an increase in scoring chances in the past three games will eventually yield a goal. He's logged six shots on goal in that span after recording only two during a seven-game span to start the month.

"When you're in a slump and not getting shots, that's a problem," Clark said. "When you're getting shots, something's going to go in eventually."

As a former player, Boudreau knows what Clark is going through. He's also acutely aware of what that first goal can do for Clark's psyche.

"I thought the past few games, his skating, his hitting, his forechecking was quite good. You could see, 'Oh man, he had a chance!' " Boudreau said. "That's why you give him more ice time. I think it will be like when [Nicklas Backstrom] broke his slump. It will be like the weight of the world is off his shoulders. I've been in that situation. You think about it 24 hours a day. To get that first one would be tremendous."

Capitals Notes: Green (bruised shoulder) practiced for the first time since suffering the injury on Wednesday. But he said he does not anticipating returning before this weekend. Semin, who has missed four games with an upper back strain, also practiced but is "doubtful" for Monday's game, Boudreau said. Fedorov did not practice after re-injuring his ankle in the first period of Saturday's game and likely won't suit up. José Theodore is expected to start in goal for Washington.

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