With More Time on the Ice, Capitals' Jurcina Heats Up

Since being paired with Karl Alzner, defenseman Milan Jurcina, above, has thrived for the Capitals. "I feel really good right now," Jurcina said.
Since being paired with Karl Alzner, defenseman Milan Jurcina, above, has thrived for the Capitals. "I feel really good right now," Jurcina said. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

After the Washington Capitals lost one player after another to injury last month, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau had little choice but to give more responsibility to Milan Jurcina, who, at the time, was the team's No. 6 defenseman.

It has turned out to be precisely what Jurcina needed to turn his season around.

In the season's first 20 games, Jurcina had a goal, an assist and a plus-minus rating of minus-4 while averaging only 15 minutes 2 seconds of ice time. But after his defensive partner, John Erskine, suffered a concussion in Minnesota on Nov. 24, Boudreau paired Jurcina with top prospect Karl Alzner, then gave the tandem a bigger role.

In the 11 games since, Jurcina has skated 17:20 or more 10 times, has notched two goals and three assists and is a plus-5. He has also been so reliable in his own end, Boudreau has matched him against the opposing team's top offensive players in recent games.

"I feel really good right now," Jurcina said after yesterday's practice. "I feel better because I'm playing more. When you are playing 13, 14 minutes, it's tough. Now I'm playing 16, 17, 18 minutes or more, and that's helping get me more involved in the game and get more confidence. Coach is putting me out there against top lines, too, and that gives you a little more of a confidence booster."

Then he added, "Right now, I can't wait to go out there for another shift."

Tonight, Jurcina and the streaking Capitals host a St. Louis Blues team that's headed in the opposite direction. The banged-up Blues have lost four in a row, yielding an average of 5.3 goals during their slide, and are expected to be without several of their best players, including their No. 1 goalie (Manny Legace), No. 1 defenseman (Eric Brewer) and three of their top six forwards (Paul Kariya, Andy McDonald and T.J. Oshie), all because of injury.

The Capitals, meantime, will be seeking to equal a season-best five-game winning streak.

Jurcina has had plenty to do with his team's surge.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Slovak said Alzner's puck-moving ability and sound instincts in the defensive end have allowed him to focus on his own responsibilities, such as proper positioning.

"We have chemistry," Jurcina said. "Karl is a great player, one of the best young defensemen in the NHL right now. He skates well and moves the puck well. So you can count on him when he goes to the corners. You don't have to watch him, you can trust him. He's steady."

Boudreau agreed with Jurcina's assessment.

"Playing with Karl, who is a steadying influence even though he's only 20 years old, isn't hurting him at all," he said. "Juice and Alzner seem to fit. We've kept them together and they're getting better every game. Milan is the kind of guy who really thrives on confidence, and right now his game is really at its" best.

Jurcina has been just as impressive in the offensive end. He helped set up the game-winner against the Islanders on Dec. 4, then scored the decisive goals two nights later in Toronto. Jurcina tallied his third goal (equaling his total in 105 games with the Capitals entering this season) during Tuesday's 5-4 overtime win on Long Island.

Boudreau said he's pleased with Jurcina's progress, but he also wants to see more from a 25-year-old whom the organization feels has yet to reach his prime. Jurcina has one of the hardest shots on the team (he has broken three panes of plexiglass this week in practice) yet he has taken only 27 shots, the 14th most on the team. He also does not dish out enough board-rattling body checks, despite his prodigious size.

"He can be more physical," Boudreau said. "It's hard to get him to do it on a consistent basis. But he's doing it more often now, though."

In the coming days and weeks, Boudreau will face some tough decisions when Erskine and Jeff Schultz return from their injuries. But this much is known: Jurcina's turnaround won't make Boudreau's decision any easier.

"If he continues to play the way he's been playing," Boudreau said, "he'll continue to play a lot."

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