Having just been hired as coach, Bruce Cassidy spent the summer watching tapes of the Washington Capitals' final 12 games from last season, and in each game, forward Dainius Zubrus leapt from the screen, lugging the puck from one end to the next, making smart defensive decisions and creating bountiful scoring chances.
For Cassidy's first five months on the job, however, that Zubrus was missing. A contract impasse, an absence from training camp and a nagging hand injury that eventually required surgery limited Zubrus, who bounced from line to line and played only about 12 minutes a game. This appeared to be a lost season for the 24-year-old, but when Jaromir Jagr and Kip Miller suffered injuries last month, Zubrus seized the opportunity for more ice time and has played the same assertive style with which he closed last season.
Zubrus has 10 assists and 13 points in the last 14 games (12 goals and 33 points in 62 games overall), becoming a force at both ends of the rink on a nightly basis and showing every sign of being an impact player when the postseason begins next week. He is comfortable at center or right wing -- Zubrus and center Robert Lang shuffle positions seamlessly on the resurgent second line -- and his evolution gives Cassidy additional offensive depth and more versatility to juggle personnel in the upcoming first-round series with Tampa Bay.
"He must be a March player, which is good," Cassidy said. "That's a good time of the year to crank it up. He's probably been our most consistent forward over the last month, and we need to have threats on different lines.
"You know what [Jeff] Halpern's [checking] line is going to give you, and I think right now Jagr is still finding his stride with Kip and they missed some time [with injuries], so if Zuby and Langer can get their line going and be consistent in terms of offense every night, that's crucial for us, because it's tough to win on a regular basis with only one line scoring, especially with our power play being sporadic."
Last year, Zubrus's momentum ended when the Capitals failed to make the playoffs. He was the team's top center after Adam Oates was dealt at the March trade deadline and seemed primed for a breakthrough season, or now, perhaps a breakout postseason.
Since March 1, Zubrus has averaged around 19 minutes, playing as many as 25 on some nights. His defensive awareness allows him to double-shift with the fourth line at times and his rating of plus-13 is tops among Washington's forwards.
"Maybe it has something to do with the time of year," Zubrus said. "And I am finally through all my injuries and missing training camp and you put it all together and the first half of the season definitely was very frustrating."
Zubrus, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound machine who could pose big problems for Tampa Bay's smallish defense, is still not satisfied with his finishing touch -- "There are a few chances every game where I could score and I'm not doing it," he said -- but may have finally found a comfort zone playing with Lang, who has five goals and 15 points in 12 games. Cassidy has searched for a consistent second line all season and Zubrus and Lang are thriving whether Peter Bondra or Sergei Berezin is skating on the left side.
Zubrus's puck skills, strength and size are great attributes along the boards, and he often takes over the center's defensive duties for Lang. Sometimes Zubrus comes out of the defensive zone with the puck and heads down the middle of the ice, and he and Lang also alternate faceoff duties, taking the draws on their backhands (Lang is right-handed and Zubrus is left-handed). Their flowing, overlapping style has confused opposing teams, and Zubrus has continually set up Lang by charging wide and drawing defenders his way.
"It's been working really well the last 10 games or so," Lang said. "It's easier for us and any time you have a player on your line who can draw the attention or hold on to the puck for any amount of time, it's nice because it buys you time and you can get open and vice versa. So it's definitely nice playing with him, and this is a good time for him to get hot."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brendan Witt (ribs) practiced yesterday but will not play tonight. Defenseman Ken Klee (bruised foot) did not make it through the entire practice, and winger Berezin (arm) did not practice. All three will miss tonight's game but are set to return for the start of the playoffs. Cassidy asked several other veteran players if they would like to skip tonight's game, which has no bearing on the playoffs, but most want to play and will be allowed to do so. Pittsburgh Hall of Fame captain Mario Lemieux is skipping the game amid speculation that he will retire again.