Before training camp began, Washington Capitals Coach Ron Wilson chose left wing Ulf Dahlen to team with center Adam Oates and right wing Peter Bondra on his top offensive line. The experiment was brief and unsuccessful. Now, more than 20 games into the regular season, it seems Wilson's instinct was right after all.
The Capitals have been searching all season for a line to complement the Steve Konowalchuk-Jan Bulis-Richard Zednik unit, and lately Oates's line has done more than its share. Oates and Dahlen started slowly, but both are playing their best hockey of the season while Bondra continues to score key goals. The line also has rejuvenated the Capitals' sagging power play.
On Wednesday night, Dahlen scored both goals--one on the power play--in a 5-2 loss to Buffalo. On Friday night, the line was dominating but did not score until Dahlen managed to find the net in the third period, capping a 1-0 shutout of Nashville. The following night, the line produced two goals in the third period for a 4-3 defeat of the New York Islanders as the Capitals pulled themselves back to the .500 mark (9-9-4).
"That's what we need from those guys," Wilson said. "You're not going anywhere with just one line. Maybe you can get to the playoffs, but then it's over and out. We need contributions by more than just a couple of guys on one line."
A line consisting of a 37-year-old (Oates), a 32-year-old who spent the past two years playing in Europe (Dahlen) and a 31-year-old whose goal production slipped from 52 to 31 last season (Bondra) has thrived through a grueling stretch of three games in four nights. The Capitals hope to get the same level of play from the unit Monday night in Toronto, the team's fourth game in six days.
Dahlen spent most of October working into game shape and struggling to crack the lineup. Oates failed to score in his first 14 games, extending a 30-game drought dating from last season, and had just three assists through 10 games. Bondra got off to a hot start with nine goals in 11 games, then cooled. Wilson tried a number of left wingers with Oates and Bondra--Glen Metropolit, Chris Simon, Yogi Svejkovsky, James Black and Alexandre Volchkov--but none of the combinations clicked.
The current grouping could dissolve after a few more games as well, but Dahlen's ability to get control of the puck along the boards, Oates's playmaking and Bondra's lethal scoring touch seem a good match.
"I like this line," Bondra said. "The chances are there for us. We stick to the system and fight through back-to-back games and keep creating enough chances to score some goals."
After failing to score a point in 11 games, Dahlen has three goals in the past three games. Oates has points in four straight and 13 points in his last 12 games. Bondra leads the team with 13 goals, including four power-play goals and three game-winning goals. Eleven of Bondra's goals have tied the game or given Washington a lead.
The line has accounted for a power-play goal in three consecutive games, on 10 chances. That is a positive development for a team that struggled with the man advantage for much of the season.
"On the power play, other teams have to focus on those two guys, and a lot of teams give the third guy a chance to find loose pucks, and that's my game," Dahlen said. "My game has always been going into the corner to get pucks and trying to make a play around the net. I take my game from there. I think we're creating a lot of chances. Even when the puck doesn't go in, we're creating momentum for our team."
Capitals Notes: Wilson said defenseman Joe Reekie (bruised foot) will be out at least two more weeks. . . . The Capitals will collect unwrapped toys to donate to needy youngsters at the game Thursday against the Boston Bruins. . . . Fans who donate a winter coat at the Dec. 13 game against the Montreal Canadiens will receive a Capitals hat. . . . The final home game of the season, April 9 against the Buffalo Sabres, has been moved to a noon start. . . . Though no announcement has been made, Yvon Labre, the team's director of community relations, is believed to be ending his 25-year association with the club at the end of the calendar year to pursue other interests, though the team has yet to receive official word of his plans.
Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Air Canada Centre.
Records: Capitals 9-9-4, 23 points; Maple Leafs 13-9-3, 31 points.
Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (6-8-4, 3.12 goals-against average) vs. Maple Leafs' Curtis Joseph (11-6-3, 1.92).
Injuries: Capitals D Joe Reekie (bruised foot) is out; RW Joe Sacco (bruised leg) and LW Chris Simon (neck strain) are doubtful; D Brendan Witt (muscle strain) is questionable. The Maple Leafs report no injuries.
CAPTION: Capitals' Ken Klee, left, pulls down Islanders' Brad Isbister. Klee was penalized, but Washington won, 4-3, Saturday.