Washington and Chicago will face each other tonight for the first time since September's brawl that earned Capitals General Manager George McPhee a one-month suspension, but anyone looking for a rematch at MCI Center likely will be disappointed. With both teams languishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences, earning two points has become far more important than earning revenge for a preseason incident in which McPhee gave Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken a black eye in a postgame fight.
"Of course, it's going to be something people are talking about, but we're going to try to just go out there and play hockey," Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig said yesterday after practice, the team's first since a three-day holiday break. "Our general manager already stood up for us, so really the best thing that we can do to show we appreciate that is to go out and win the hockey game. We certainly could use the win."
Washington (12-16-5) enters tonight's game on a three-game losing streak, courtesy of some bad timing, bad luck and bad team defensive play. The Capitals also have struggled with injuries, although tonight they expect to have everyone available--including right wing Peter Bondra, who has been out since undergoing surgery on his left knee Dec. 5, and left wing Chris Simon, who missed one game with a neck strain.
Working Bondra and Simon back into the lineup as well as adjusting for recent transgressions in their own end will leave the Capitals with little energy for proving something to Chicago, players said, although no one has forgotten what transpired during that preseason game. The Capitals believed the Blackhawks used a lineup filled with overly aggressive players, and McPhee, feeling that Chicago had sent players onto the ice with the intention of hurting his team, sought out Molleken.
An argument between the two turned ugly when McPhee punched Molleken in the face and several Blackhawks responded by grabbing McPhee, tearing one sleeve off his suit. The NHL fined McPhee $20,000 and suspended him for one month; Chicago defenseman Dave Manson earned a one-game suspension for attempting to injure Capitals left wing Steve Konowalchuk. Molleken was not penalized, although he has since been demoted to associate coach. General Manager Bob Pulford has officially taken over head coaching duties, although Molleken is still making some in-game decisions and running some practices.
Yesterday, McPhee said he has put the incident behind him. Still, he realizes he probably will not get through tonight's game without several references to his fighting abilities.
"I'm sure the fans and the media will have fun with it, but for the people involved, the game will really just be about getting two points for either club," he said, adding, "I've had discussions with [Blackhawks owner] Bill Wirtz, and we understand each other."
McPhee said he is much more concerned with the Capitals improving their play, especially after allowing five or more goals in each of their last three games. To prevent a repeat performance tonight, Coach Ron Wilson briefly addressed his players after practice yesterday, imploring them to stay focused and resist the temptation to overcompensate for any mistakes.
"I told them that we have to be ready to play defensively--we're playing a team that's started to score a lot of goals," Wilson said. "That's our number one responsibility, taking care of our end."
As for the offense, Wilson said he is looking forward to getting Bondra back on the ice, even though "in fairness to Peter, he hasn't played in three weeks, and I'm sure it's going to take him a little time to get his timing back because we haven't practiced. It's hard to say how he'll play, but he's a great hockey player, so things should click for him fairly quickly."