There have been glimpses and little pockets of potent play that characterize Peter Zezel's game.
But because of a troublesome ankle, Zezel has yet to put his own solid stamp on the Washington Capitals. He is hoping to begin that endeavor again Friday night when the Capitals play the Calgary Flames at Capital Centre.
"It's really been frustrating," Zezel said yesterday. "This is the longest I've ever been out. I had a shoulder separation but that was only about two weeks. Half the year is gone and I've only played 17 games."
Zezel, a forward, and defenseman Mike Lalor joined the Capitals last summer after a trade with St. Louis for Geoff Courtnall. Lalor has played every game, but Zezel missed seven weeks and several smaller chunks of time because of that ankle. After never playing fewer than 65 games in his six previous seasons (in 1988-89 he played 83 games), Zezel would have to play all 36 remaining games to make 53.
Zezel missed the Oct. 15 game in Montreal with a sore ankle, but the big injury came Oct. 30 in Vancouver. The Canucks' Garth Butcher took the legs from under Zezel and he landed badly on his left ankle. He didn't return to the lineup until Dec. 22. Zezel had three goals in the first three games of the season (five in his first 13), then scored again in his first game back against Toronto.
He played two more games (with a goal and an assist), but then sat out the Dec. 29 game in Quebec. He played the first two periods against New Jersey on Jan. 1, but the ankle got sore again. Zezel watched the last two games. He and the Capitals are hoping that will be enough.
Zezel has played 452 NHL games, so the Capitals knew his style when they traded for him, but there is always something to be learned when someone is in-country. Zezel was still learning to adjust offensively and defensively (he returns with a plus-minus rating of minus-12) to his new team and its systems.
"I know what he can do from seeing him in the Patrick Division over the years," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said, referring to Zezel's four-plus seasons in Philadelphia. "But it is a good question as far as what can he do for the Washington Capitals. Who is he going to play well with?"
For much of the fall, Zezel was working out with Frank Costello, the Capitals' strength and conditioning coach. There were days when Zezel showed up at the University of Maryland at 7 a.m. for workouts with Costello. The sessions were designed to keep the muscular Zezel flexible and maintain his cardiovascular conditioning while the ankle mended.
"It wasn't like we had to pull teeth," Costello said of Zezel's willingness to work. "He's smart enough to know that this is his livelihood and he took it very seriously."
Zezel gained only about three pounds since the start of the season, but his percentage of body fat dropped from about 11.9 percent to 9.3 percent. Some of it was due to the workouts and some due to a change in eating habits. That part was aided by Patricia Mann, the Capitals' nutritionist.
"I don't think I need to show people what I can do," said Zezel, who had 25 goals and 47 assists last season for the Blues. "They wouldn't have traded for me if they didn't know what I could do. I just have to do the things they liked when they got me -- get back to hitting and playing hard."