There is no glamour in skating on the fourth line. No one chants your name. No one wears your jersey. Almost no one knows who you are.
But for the youngsters playing regularly on the Washington Capitals' fourth line, there is no place they would rather be. It means they are not sitting in the press box, watching the game as a healthy scratch, or playing in the minors. The line, which is centered by rookie Brian Sutherby, has gradually improved and, although it is still too prone to taking penalties, the unit has become defensively sound and is providing a much-needed physical element.
Sutherby has played every game since being recalled from Portland of the American Hockey League on Nov. 10, and he has not been on the ice for a goal scored against the Capitals since his first game, a span of 12 games. Sutherby, 20, scored his first NHL goal Tuesday night in Toronto, and has been playing with an edge and getting to the net. Another rookie, Alex Henry, 23, is adapting to a move from defense to the wing with enforcer Stephen Peat out of the lineup with a hand injury, handling himself well in several fights and landing some heavy checks.
With key forwards such as Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus battling nagging injuries, the Capitals will need continued production from unlikely sources. Sutherby played his most minutes of the season Wednesday night with those three players out (16 minutes 32 seconds) and was promoted to a top scoring line.
"I think we're starting to feel a little more comfortable," Sutherby said of the fourth-liners. "Every game you feel a little more confident out there. It's been pretty good. We just go out there and try to create some energy and get some jump and try to contribute in the rough stuff. Whatever it takes to get the team going, we'll try to do it."
The Capitals have been seeking a younger, quicker and tougher fourth line for years, and in recent years discarded veterans such as Joe Sacco, Dmitri Khristich, Benoit Hogue and James Black to make room for younger players. In time they hope to get more offense, but the most important job requirement of any fourth line is to keep the puck out of its net and play a high-energy game for eight to 10 minutes a game.
Coach Bruce Cassidy has not used the fourth line more because the Capitals so often fall behind in the first period that he has to rely on his three offensive lines to carry the load. However, Cassidy said he can envision the roles of some fourth-line players expanding.
"It always gives you a lift when the fourth line scores," Cassidy said. "But if we can get Brian Sutherby to be a regular on the penalty kill, and get Alex Henry to adjust to the wing and give us some toughness and if it's [Andreas Salomonsson] or [Glen Metropolit] with them, your fourth line can't hurt you away from the puck . . . and they're getting it. Brian Sutherby is a very good defensive player and Alex is learning his position and Salomonsson is getting it. So we're okay in that regard."
Sutherby could be a potential team captain, a gritty two-way center with the hands to score 20-plus goals and the will to drop his gloves. Henry is more of a project. He was claimed off waivers from Edmonton and may be caught in a roster bind when Peat returns, but has looked better skating on the wing lately.
"It's coming, slowly but surely," Henry said. "I think I'll get used to it. It's still growing on me, just the little things, like where to go and what to do in certain situations. That's what I have to learn. I'm starting to come around to it."
Capitals Notes: Bondra (back spasms) and Jagr (strained groin) skated with the team yesterday after missing Wednesday's 4-2 victory over Calgary. A decision on whether they will play tonight will be made this afternoon. . . . Zubrus, who also missed Wednesday's game with a bruised hand, skated briefly but still cannot grip a stick and is unlikely to play against the Senators, Cassidy said. . . . Forwards Michael Nylander and Mike Grier left practice about 15 minutes early with what Cassidy said were "little aches." Neither is expected to miss any playing time.
Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.