Washington Capitals winger Steve Konowalchuk repeats the same messages to his unlucky linemates game after game, regularly telling youngsters Jan Bulis, 21, and Richard Zednik, 24, to keep working hard each shift, not to fall prey to frustration, not to think about their scoring slumps.
Eventually, what was once the Capitals' most potent line will find the net again. At some point their recently renewed effort will produce results. With Washington bracing for a season-long playoff struggle and leading scorer Peter Bondra out at least one more game with a sprained knee, they can't get going again soon enough.
"I just keep saying, 'Hey, boys, keep working,' " Konowalchuk, 27, said. "You never know when it's going to go in. You work and work and work and never think it's going to go in, and all of a sudden, boom, one goes in and the next thing you know you're on a hot streak. You never know.
"I just keep saying, 'If you quit, you're never going to get through it.' You just keep competing through it. Whether it happens or doesn't happen, all you can do is keep competing through it. I think they understand that."
That hasn't always been the case. Coach Ron Wilson was thrilled with the line's work through the first six weeks of the season, when it survived heavy pressure in the opposition's zone and feasted on turnovers. Bulis had seven goals and 12 points in Washington's first 14 games; Konowalchuk four goals and 11 points. Zednik was a constant presence around the net, but hit numerous posts and scored one goal and six points in that span.
But by Thanksgiving, the line's efficiency was waning. Bulis suffered a neck injury and has yet to rediscover his early season scoring touch (one goal in the last 19 games). Zednik has scored in just five of 39 games this season (seven goals) and has not scored away from MCI Center, where the Capitals are 5-13-1. He has no goals in the last 13 games.
Konowalchuk remains a tireless worker, and is second on the team with 23 points, but he has not scored in 10 games.
"They've got to find a way to score, that's all," Wilson said. "We need offense from them. Zednik hasn't scored in 13 games and he has to find a way to break through. Bulis only has three points in his last 13 or 14 games, and he's got to come out and play harder than he's been playing.
"We've talked to them about competing and persevering when things aren't going well, and when you're young it's easy to get down and you can't. The whole season is about cycles and everybody goes through tough times and it's how you react to them. And there are times when I'm not happy with their reaction--instead of digging in and pushing they go with the bad and let it keep pushing them away instead of pushing back. I want them to push back and dig in."
Lately they have been playing similarly to the way they began the season, but without the results. With the fourth line--James Black, Jeff Halpern and Joe Sacco--improving each game and playing upward of 15 minutes a night, Bulis and Zednik are playing fewer minutes.
"Right now, I've got a fourth line that produces more than any of the other lines," Wilson said. "And I give them less ice time and I'm an idiot for doing that. That's why they are starting to play more." Bulis's line also is getting fewer shifts on special teams than before. All of it is part of the learning process.
Bulis "gets a little frustrated when he doesn't kill penalties or he's not on the top power-play unit," Konowalchuk said. "Sometimes it disrupts our rhythm a little bit. We'll be out there and the other team takes a penalty and we take a penalty and our line misses a couple of shifts and that's tough for young guys. It's frustrating because they want to keep going and going, but you've got to wait for your time and be ready when you do get your chance. It's just learning patience."
Capitals Notes: Bondra has not skated in a week since leaving a game with his knee injury. Wilson said the winger could try to practice today or Wednesday, but it's still unknown if he'll be able to play by the weekend.