When everything feels right and Peter Bondra is a confident goal scorer, thought is not necessary. He does not consider his options in a two-on-one and he does not peruse the ice for passing options. Bondra just shoots.
That shot -- the stick arched above Bondra's head, the trigger-quick release and the uncanny accuracy -- comes naturally to Bondra, but has been in hiding much of this season. Friday night it reappeared as Bondra scored a vintage goal on a two-on-one with Jeff Halpern, his 22nd goal of the season. That total is respectable, but well off Bondra's usual pace, and with Jaromir Jagr firmly entrenched as Washington's top scoring option this season, Bondra has had to find his way in a multi-tiered attack.
Bondra, second only to Jagr in NHL goals since 1993-94, has been the go-to scorer during his 13 years with Washington, becoming the franchise leader in goals and one of the most feared power-play performers in the game. But now Jagr is the first-line right winger, the leading scorer, the focus of the power play and the forward who gets the most ice time. Bondra has bounced from line to line -- his regular centers over the previous six seasons, Adam Oates and Andrei Nikolishin, are no longer around -- and has scored only four times in his last 13 games. But Bondra, 35, believes he could regain his touch in short order.
"I don't think I am disappointed with my season, [that's] the way it goes," Bondra said. "Obviously, the goals and numbers are not there, but I am working hard and with time it will come. The chances are there and I am so close to maybe exploding. You get one or two goals and all of a sudden the next night you a get hat trick and you get yourself on a streak.
"Maybe confidence is a factor in my game and maybe sometimes on a night the team needs one goal and you don't get it I am maybe down on myself a bit, but overall I am pretty happy with how the team plays and the most important thing is we are winning."
There has always been a streaky nature about Bondra, the fifth-leading European-born scorer in NHL history. It is a quality inherent in most pure scorers. But this season he has yet to get truly hot. He has not scored in more than two straight games this season. He began the campaign with eight goals in his first 15 games, but has scored only 14 goals over his last 42 games.
In the past, Bondra evaluated himself almost solely on his output; his goals total and standing among the NHL's top scorers defined him. He has learned to judge himself more on effort, work rate and overall play, and despite his slumps, a nagging ankle injury and diminished ice time, he has remained upbeat.
"When I tried to establish myself in this league I put a lot of pressure on myself to score goals, now it's not really like that," Bondra said. "I want to play well and want to win. When you win you feel good when you come the next day for practice and everybody is happy. That's what I enjoy more. When we struggled last year and missed the playoffs and I am still scoring [team-leading 39 goals], it wasn't fun at all."
Coach Bruce Cassidy first noticed a change in Bondra's scoring mentality a few months ago, when he began to look for others rather than pound goaltenders on the rush. He has tried Bondra on right and left wing, with three different centers and at various spots on the power play, but nothing has clicked.
Cassidy would like to see Bondra shoot more, at both even strength and on the power play. Bondra was second in the league with 333 shots last season and took 305 shots on goal the season before that, but has just 168 shots this season.
"He's going to have to crank it up when he's out there," Cassidy said. "Peter still has to get his shots from the point on the power play to get his confidence going."
The biggest change in Bondra's game is on the power play. For years he was a fixture along the blueline at the right point, the first player Oates looked to for a one-timer. Now, with Jagr running the power play, sharp-shooting defenseman Sergei Gonchar is stationed in that spot, with Bondra on the left side to make cuts for back-door passes, which have been few and far between. Bondra is back on the right side when the little-used second power-play unit is on the ice, and has just seven power-play goals this season -- three since Thanksgiving -- after leading the NHL in power-play goals each of the last two seasons, with 22 and 17, respectively.
"He's not our go-to guy as much as Jagr and Gonchar are, and that's just the way the power play has evolved," Cassidy said. "Two months ago you could and did question [the power play], everyone did including us in here, and now I don't think you can. So I'm not going to sit here and say we've got to do this to get Peter going."
Bondra is just pleased to see the power play back on track.
"I was playing on right side on the power play before with Oatesie, and the power play I think was pretty good and I benefited from that, no question," Bondra said. "I was the leading scorer for two years on the power play and now I am on the other side and it doesn't make a difference to me. Gonch is on the right side and he is scoring and look at our power play, it is improving and we're scoring goals and that's what we all want. That is what matters most to me."