Caps Get an On-Time Arrival

Washington's Tomas Fleischmann skated a season-high 18:57 in Monday's game and should continue to play a significant role on the injury-depleted squad.
Washington's Tomas Fleischmann skated a season-high 18:57 in Monday's game and should continue to play a significant role on the injury-depleted squad. (By Al Bello -- Getty Images)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Nov. 25 -- Tomas Fleischmann sat in his locker room stall, peeling off pieces of his equipment when he was approached by a reporter, notepad and recorder in hand.

"You want to talk to me?" the Washington Capitals winger said, smiling. "Again?"

All the attention is something new for Fleischmann, who in the span of a few months has gone from a healthy scratch in the playoffs to someone the Capitals can't do without.

Fleischmann scored goals in four of the past six games and has a total of eight, which ranks third on the team behind stars Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin. He's also fifth in shots on goal (46), seventh in points (11) and has become a mainstay on the power-play and the penalty-kill units.

While there's no guarantee that Fleischmann will remain on pace for 31 goals, Coach Bruce Boudreau said he believes the 24-year-old has finally developed into the offensive threat club officials believed he could become.

"Good teams, they develop their own players," Boudreau said. "That's happening with Tomas. He's starting to have a year that we always thought he could have."

Fleischmann was one of the few bright spots on the Capitals' four-game Western Conference road trip, which ended with three consecutive losses and a new round of injuries to a roster already beset by them. Fleischmann scored goals in Anaheim and San Jose, then helped set up Ovechkin's tally as the Capitals mounted a furious comeback bid that came up just short in a 4-3 loss in Minnesota on Monday.

"I don't know if the game around me is slowing down or if I'm speeding up," said Fleischmann, who has at least one shot in 20 games. "It took me one year [in the American Hockey League] and it has taken one year [in the NHL]. I'm just starting to find my way here. I don't have to think about it anymore. I just do it."

With a grueling stretch of three games in four nights set to begin at Verizon Center against Atlanta, and several key offensive players sidelined, Wednesday night would be a good time for Fleischmann to get his first career goal -- or two -- against Ilya Kovalchuk (seven goals) and the Thrashers. Atlanta snapped a three-game losing streak with a 6-3 victory Tuesday night in Toronto.

Fleischmann skated a season-high 18 minutes 57 seconds in Minnesota, partly because he had earned the additional ice time, Boudreau said, but mostly because he had to.

The Capitals lost defenseman Jeff Schultz in the first period to a broken finger, center Boyd Gordon to back spasms a few minutes later and defenseman John Erskine to an undisclosed ailment late in the second period. Chris Clark, meantime, only played one shift in the third period, one day after leaving practice early.

Those injuries are on top of the ones to defenseman Mike Green (bruised shoulder), right wing Semin (upper back strain) and center Sergei Fedorov (sprained ankle), three of the team's best players. Schultz will miss four to six weeks and is expected to be placed on long-term injured reserve to free cap space so the team can afford to recall at least one, and perhaps two, prospects from AHL's Hershey (Pa.) Bears. Green isn't expected to play until this weekend at the earliest, while the others are all listed as day-to-day.

As for Fleischmann, he appears on the verge of establishing himself as legitimate top-six forward. But there are still aspects of his game that he can improve upon. Generously listed at 6 feet 1, 190 pounds, he still gets knocked off the puck too easily and his plus-minus rating (minus-8) is the worst on the team.

Despite those deficiencies, Fleischmann is giving the Capitals exactly what all good teams must have in the salary cap era: big production from a player with a small cap hit. At a cost of $725,000, he's the team's 12th-highest-paid player.

"It's nice to have them," General Manager George McPhee said. "It gives you room [under the cap] to do something else to help your club. Tomas is someone we've been high on for a long time. Players just develop at a different rate. He was one we thought could be a really good one, and he's starting to get there."

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