The Washington Capitals have a terrific opportunity to reel off their first extended winning streak of the season, climb back to .500 and crawl back into playoff position by playing expansion Atlanta three times in seven days. However, the Capitals likely will begin this stretch against the NHL's worst defensive team and third-worst offensive team without leading scorer Peter Bondra, who re-injured his left knee Tuesday night in his fourth game back from minor arthroscopic surgery.
Bondra left Tuesday's game after one period and did not skate yesterday, but will accompany the team to Atlanta for tonight's game. Coach Ron Wilson said there's a possibility Bondra could attend the morning skate and perhaps even play, though it's doubtful.
Center Andrei Nikolishin, who is nursing a groin injury, also missed practice yesterday as a precaution. He didn't skate Monday but had three points in Tuesday's 6-1 victory over Montreal. Wilson expects Nikolishin to play tonight.
Bondra's absence would give struggling winger Yogi Svejkovsky a chance to enter the lineup after being scratched two straight games. Svejkovsky has not scored in his last 21 games and is trying to rediscover his game. He likely will skate with Nikolishin and Jeff Toms on the third line, which plays between 13 and 15 minutes a game.
"It will be his responsibility to respond," Wilson said.
Toms, 25, had earned his way back into the lineup in place of Svejkovsky. The 6-foot-5, 213-pound forward has improved his strength and conditioning. He has shuttled between the NHL and the minors his entire career, but has thrived since returning from hernia surgery last month. He picked up his first point of the season Saturday and netted a goal and an assist Tuesday.
"That's what you look for, whether you get one shift or you get 100," Wilson said. "If you want to show the coaches you deserve more ice time you have to grab that opportunity and make sure you do the best you can and impress."
When Bondra returns, Toms and Svejkovsky will battle to stay in the lineup. Wilson said Bondra, who is the only Capital with double-digit goals (13), will not skate with Adam Oates and Chris Simon on the top line. The trio did not click recently, and Bondra will be paired with Nikolishin when he comes back, with either Toms or Svejkovsky on the left wing. Ulf Dahlen, who has elevated his game exponentially since October, returned to the top line Tuesday and again excelled with Oates and Simon--that line was potent during Bondra's absence, scoring 14 points in a two-game span.
It seems the team's offense might be peaking. Simon has five goals in his last seven games. Dahlen has seven points in his last seven games, including three multiple-assists games. Oates is back among NHL leaders with 24 assists and has 24 points in his last 24 games. The fourth line of James Black, Jeff Halpern and Joe Sacco is great defensively and scoring key goals. Nikolishin and Toms are coming along. Key defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored his first career hat trick Tuesday and has six goals in 12 games after none in his first 20. Defensemen Calle Johansson and Dmitri Mironov also are scoring points with more regularity.
The only thing missing is some production from the team's hardest working and hardest luck line--Steve Konowalchuk, Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik. They led the team through the first six weeks of the season and continue to forecheck tenaciously and create chances. But Bulis has just one goal in his last 16 games, Konowalchuk has none in eight games and Zednik has not scored in 11 games. If they get going, the low-scoring Capitals might extend their season-high four-game undefeated streak into something more substantial and perhaps win more than two games in a row for the first time.
"That's what we're looking for," Wilson said. "But there aren't many teams in the league that can say all four lines are connecting. And when you do find yourself in that position, you win five or six in a row. That's what I'm hoping for. We've got games in hand on all these teams ahead of us and now here's our chance. We're making a race of it and you can't ask for anything more than that."