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With four moves at NHL trade deadline, Capitals in position for run

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; D01

BUFFALO -- By pulling off four separate deals on Wednesday, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee sent a not-so-subtle message to the rest of the National Hockey League: He believes the time is now for his team to make a Stanley Cup run.

The Capitals were among the busiest teams prior to the 3 p.m. trade deadline, acquiring defensemen Joe Corvo (Carolina) and Milan Jurcina (Columbus) as well as forwards Scott Walker (Carolina) and Eric Belanger (Minnesota) in an effort to add depth and grit to their lineup.

The Capitals surrendered only one player from their current roster, defenseman Brian Pothier, who went to the Hurricanes in the Corvo deal.

"I don't know if we're the favorite," Coach Bruce Boudreau said prior to the Capitals' 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night. "But any time you have the chance to improve your team without giving up a lot, that's a pretty good exchange."

While the Capitals did not add the crease-clearing defenseman fans were clamoring for, Corvo is expected to be an upgrade for a blue line that has struggled at times this season. Corvo, 32, is fast, has an above-average shot and can play in all situations. Boudreau said Corvo, who is listed at 6 feet, 204 pounds, will receive plenty of ice time on the league's top-ranked power play, which will allow the coaching staff to keep defenseman Mike Green's playing time in check. Boudreau coached Corvo in the Los Angeles Kings' minor league system from 2001 through 2003.

"Corvo was the top defenseman available in our minds and we got him," McPhee said.

In addition to sending Pothier to Carolina, the Capitals also traded prospect Oskar Osala and a second-round pick in the 2011 draft to the struggling Hurricanes, who dealt five veterans one year after reaching the conference finals.

Corvo's season was nearly derailed because of an injury he suffered in a game against the Capitals on Nov. 30. In that contest, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner's skate sliced Corvo's right leg, forcing him to miss 28 games. Because of the injury, he has appeared in only 34 contests, racking up four goals, eight assists and a plus-minus rating of minus-6 in an average of 25 minutes 13 seconds per game.

"An opportunity comes around a handful of times in a career that you get to go to such a strong team with such high expectations at this time of the year," Corvo said as he prepared to fly to Washington from Raleigh, N.C. "You just have to seize it."

None of the new players joined the Capitals for the game in Buffalo. But Corvo, Walker and Belanger were expected to be available to suit up for Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center. The plan for Jurcina, who was reacquired after being traded to Columbus in December, was unclear since the defenseman is scheduled to miss four to six weeks with a sports hernia.

The second-most significant move was the acquisition of Belanger, another veteran who once played for Boudreau in the Kings' farm system.

Belanger, 32, who was picked up for a second-round draft pick, is known for his speed, efficiency in the faceoff circle and proficiency on the penalty kill, an area where the Capitals have struggled. Belanger was Minnesota's fourth-leading scorer, with 13 goals and 22 assists in 60 games. He also ranks seventh in the league in faceoffs (57.6 percent), five spots behind second place David Steckel.

"And he hits sneaky hard," Boudreau said. "Just ask [Jason] Chimera," a Capitals forward.

Boudreau was referring to an incident during the preseason when Belanger hit Chimera, then with Columbus Blue Jackets, from behind into the boards. Chimera left the ice on a stretcher with a concussion and later called for Belanger's suspension.

When asked about their history on Wednesday, Chimera pretended not to remember the hit, saying, "I don't recall, I had a concussion," before laughing.

McPhee's shrewdest move, though, might have been the addition of Walker, a gritty fourth liner with a reputation for getting under the skin of opponents, scoring clutch goals and igniting his teammates with timely hits. McPhee has known Walker for almost two decades. Walker joked about representing himself in contract negotiations with McPhee when he was the Vancouver Canucks' assistant general manager.

"It was a no-brainer," said Walker, 36, who waived a no-trade clause to facilitate the move. Asked if he felt he could be the final piece of the puzzle for the young Capitals, Walker said, "One thing you learn from being around a long time is you never know. You have to make those pushes when you can."

Walker returned to the Carolina lineup this week after missing six weeks because of surgery on his shoulder. For a player Boudreau described as a "warrior," it's unclear how much Walker has left. But Boudreau said he's anxious to find out.

"He's gritty, fast and has scored some big goals against us every game," the coach said. "For depth and sandpaper, it's a great acquisition."

Each of the new players has a contract that expires this summer, as does Pothier, who signed as a free agent in 2006, early in the team's rebuilding effort. Instead of making a run with Washington, the 32-year-old defenseman, who missed large chunks of two seasons because of post-concussion syndrome, is headed to a struggling Carolina team and faces the prospect of changing clubs again during the offseason.

While Boudreau said he was excited about the additions, he also recognizes that the final 19 games of the regular season will be a balancing act as he attempts to integrate the new players and make sure that their presence doesn't upset the chemistry in a dressing room that's considered among the tightest in the league.

"As much as some guys aren't going to be playing so much anymore, the common goal will be the same," Boudreau said. "I think they'll get along fine."

Boudreau also said the Capitals sought to make a number of other improvements but that a search for help in goal "didn't go too far."

"We're pretty comfortable with the three goalies we have," he said, referring to José Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. "They've all won over 10 games and I think they're all good. People all look for faults on our team."

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