The Washington Capitals will begin the most important road trip of their season tonight with what Coach Bruce Cassidy hopes will be more balanced and more productive lines. The Capitals, who face division rivals Atlanta, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay over the next six days, want more attack from secondary lines beyond Jaromir Jagr's top line.
Washington, which leads Tampa Bay by five points in the Southeast Division, has scored only three goals over the last three games -- excluding empty-netters -- and has yet to find other scorers to supplement the torrid pace of wingers Jagr and Kip Miller, who have combined for 17 goals and 45 points in 15 games since being reunited. Michael Nylander, who was acquired from Chicago in November, had been centering that line, but his production has dipped dramatically since scoring 10 goals and 30 points in his first 23 games with the team and his playmaking skills might be best tailored to second-line winger Peter Bondra, who has not scored at his usual rate.
Bondra, who has 22 goals this season and four goals in his last 14 games, has yet to produce one of his traditional scoring streaks, but also has rarely played with a pass-first center. He, Nylander and Dainius Zubrus are now on the second line, with Robert Lang rejoining former Pittsburgh teammates Miller and Jagr on the first line. Those changes allow the immensely important checking line of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier to return to their most comfortable positions as well: Halpern and Konowalchuk were skating with Bondra, and Grier had been playing with Lang and Zubrus.
"I think we're looking for more balanced scoring on a regular basis," Cassidy said. "Obviously, Jagr's got his legs under him and he's been our one constant -- Mike Grier lost a bit of his jump and maybe now being back with Kono and Halpern on the road, that s where they got it going for us. They were dominant. And Nylander and Lang, we've switched them a little bit. It's just a gut instinct.
"Jags is skating as well as he has all year and so is Robert Lang and those guys enjoy playing with each other and had some success on the power play, so let's find out if they're going to be a five-on-five dominating line. And that leaves us with Bondra, Nylander and Zubrus -- Nylander likes to have the puck in the neutral zone and bring people to him and dish it off and Peter's got the one-timer and that's where he's a threat, so maybe there's some chemistry there."
These lines fit more into a playoff mode, with two scoring lines and a line capable of shutting down the other team's best line. Opposing clubs who focus too strongly on Jagr's line could be burned by Bondra's line, and getting Jagr and Bondra on the ice more frequently in the final 25 games could also drain opposing defensemen. Cassidy plans to make good on his promise of a few weeks ago to give more minutes to his premier players.
"We've kind of struggled with that all year: Do we need four lines to win or do we need three?" Cassidy said. "And I think we've come to the conclusion, or at least I have, that we're going to try to play three lines as much as we can. . . . I've made the decision to go with our best guys and give them as many minutes as they can handle down the stretch and we'll see where it gets us."
Players on all three lines were receptive to the changes and hope these lines stick for an extended period of time, although there will certainly be occasions within games when personnel is juggled because of match-ups and lethargic play. Finding a consistent center for Bondra on the second line would be a major development with chemistry lacking there all season.
"Michael is a playmaker," Bondra said. "When he has the puck he looks around and tries to pass the puck and hopefully I will be able to get open for him and Zuby and I will develop the right chemistry with him and we will score some goals for the team. That's what we are looking for."
Cassidy plans to spell fourth-line center Brian Sutherby with top lines on occasion to provide more size and defensive acumen, while the return of Halpern, Konowalchuk and Grier gives Washington a high tempo unit again capable of creating momentum at the start of each period.
"I have a little more comfortable feeling with those two guys," Grier said. "You don't have to think too much, you just go out and play your game and work hard and have fun. Playing with Langer and those guys, sometimes you have to improvise a little bit and it's creative hockey, but it takes longer for the chemistry to build there. With Kono and Halpie, it's just fun and easy."
Capitals Notes: Backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier is scheduled to start Saturday night in Florida. . . . Washington is an NHL-best 10-2-1 against its division. . . . Atlanta is 7-3-1 under new coach Bob Hartley, who won the Stanley Cup in 2001 with Colorado.