The Washington Capitals embarked on a season-long, five-game road trip last week looking like a team that could not win away from MCI Center and one that could not score in any arena. Three strange games later they appear to have righted themselves.
The Capitals managed 11 goals in those three games--they began the road trip having gone scoreless in 120 minutes--and nearly won all three, shutting out Atlanta (4-0), shocking the New York Rangers in overtime (3-2) and bowing to third-period fatigue in a tough 5-4 loss to New Jersey, a game in which they held two two-goal leads. The Capitals won back-to-back games on the road for the first time this season; they entered the trip having scored more than three goals in a road game just once (Nov. 27 against the last-place Islanders), then did it twice in three games.
All things considered, Coach Ron Wilson is pleased with the effort and spunk his team has shown and the club is optimistic more help is on the way: Top scorers Peter Bondra (knee) and Jan Bulis (groin) are expected to return for this week's two-game trek to Edmonton and Vancouver. They'll need every healthy player because by the end of their Western Canada swing, they will have played five road games in eight days.
Getting Bulis and Bondra back could also finally give the Capitals three quality offensive lines. Bulis was terrific in Atlanta when reunited with wingers Steve Konowalchuk and Richard Zednik, scoring a goal and an assist before getting injured. It's likely Bulis would return to that line, allowing rookie Jeff Halpern, who continues to play a strong and versatile game, to shift back to a checking role with the fourth line.
Top center Adam Oates is playing dominant hockey again, with 21 points in his last 18 games. He was placed between grinders Ulf Dahlen and Chris Simon in the second period of the game against the Rangers, and they've combined for three goals and 14 points in roughly five periods together. They are directly responsible for six of Washington's seven goals in the last two games. All three are playing tenacious, physical hockey along the boards and Simon has been the finisher, utilizing his underrated wrist shot for key goals.
"I know we don't have deadly speed or anything like that, but we just seem to play well together," Simon said. "We read off each other and Ulfie and Oates are great playmakers; they can suck two or three guys to them and that means that I've been open and I'm just trying to shoot the puck hard."
Bondra has a history of clicking with center Andrei Nikolishin, and those two could pair with Yogi Svejkovsky to form a skilled trio of Europeans. Nikolishin and Svejkovsky are both mired in extended scoring slumps and struggling offensively. Nikolishin has just two goals this season, while Svejkovsky has not scored since the season's opening game. Skating with the team's leading goal scorer and one of the premier snipers in the game could help change that.
The return of Bulis and Bondra also will bolster the Capitals' recently resurgent power play that has produced goals in eight of the last 12 games, by far the team's best stretch of the season. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who led the team with 13 power-play goals last season, finally netted his first goal with the man advantage Saturday night. He is flourishing with his regular partner, Joe Reekie, who has returned from a badly bruised foot. Gonchar, who had 21 goals in his final 40 games last season, posted two points against Atlanta, his first game back with Reekie. The duo played well defensively against the Rangers, and Gonchar registered his first two-goal game of the season against the Devils. He has four points in his last three games after totaling just one goal and six points in his first 23 games.
Notes: The Capitals will play their fifth set of back-to-back games this week--they are 5-1-2 in those games thus far. They play 10 sets of back-to-back games this season, accounting for one-quarter of the schedule. . . . Vancouver is floundering after an unexpectedly fast start, with just one win in its last 11 games; Edmonton is recovering from a rough start, going 4-4-3 in its past 11 games.