The Washington Capitals will enter their first-round playoff series with Tampa Bay at full strength as all three of the club's injured players practiced yesterday and resumed their regular spots in the lineup. The Capitals will open the series Thursday in Tampa and are spending the duration of this week honing details in practice and working on their struggling special teams play.
Defensemen Brendan Witt (ribs) and Ken Klee (bruised foot) and forward Sergei Berezin (arm) skated through a lengthy practice and reported no setbacks after sitting out the last few games of the regular season to recover from their injuries. Witt was back in his normal spot alongside defenseman Calle Johansson and Klee rounded out the other top defensive pair with Sergei Gonchar. Coach Bruce Cassidy has opted to use Joel Kwiatkowski and Jason Doig as his final defensive pair for the start of the postseason, with Kwiatkowski edging out recently recalled defenseman Josef Boumedienne for the final spot in the lineup.
"That was a tough decision; Boumedienne has done some good things since he's been here," Cassidy said. "If at some point we have injuries, then you rely on your depth, but right now we'll use [Kwiatkowski], and that could change from game to game. But he's been here longer and he has a little more experience than [Boumedienne]. So for now it's Kiwi."
Doig and Kwiatkowski have never played in the NHL postseason, but are minor league veterans. Most of Tampa Bay's roster has never played in a playoff game, as the franchise primes for its second postseason appearance. The only other playoff rookie on Washington's roster, center Brian Sutherby, will skate on the fourth line with Berezin and Trent Whitfield, although Berezin, who scored five goals and has nine points in nine games after being acquired at the trade deadline, will also continue to get shifts with top lines and feature in the power play as well.
Cassidy has elected to stick with the lines that ended the regular season, for the most part. Jaromir Jagr and Kip Miller will be centered by Michael Nylander on the first line, Dainius Zubrus, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra comprise the second line and the checking line of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier remains intact.
All of those players perform on special teams -- killing penalties, playing on the power play or doing both -- and their contributions in those areas will be vital in the playoffs. Penalties are usually not as strictly enforced and the team that is able to strike on the man advantage most regularly often ends up victorious.
The Capitals finished 28th out of 30 teams in penalty killing and 14th on the power play, far inferior to what was expected. Despite an abundance of individual stars, the power play has been prone to ugly slumps all season and comes into the postseason in a 3-for-37 slide over 11 games. Cassidy held a special teams meeting before practice yesterday, spent 30 minutes of practice focusing on the power play and plans to do the same thing today.
"In the playoffs, definitely, this is the time for special teams," said Bondra, the franchise leader with 26 playoff goals. "Not just the power play is important, but the penalty kill and team discipline is going to be a factor as well, because they have such skilled players on their team, and on our side, too. I think we can use the power play to our advantage, and I believe we will do that."
The Lightning finished with the 10th-ranked power play and had three players net 10 or more power-play goals. Washington negated 30 of Tampa Bay's 32 power plays during their five meetings in the regular season, and it will take that kind of effort to prosper in the playoffs as well. Assistant coach Randy Carlyle has reviewed tape of Tampa Bay's power play to show his team tendencies, and the staff believes repetition should lead to improvement on the penalty kill.
"It's going to have to be solid, we all know that," Cassidy said of the penalty killing. "Special teams, goaltending and luck in terms of injuries can carry you a long way in the playoffs. How you fix [the penalty kill] overnight, we don't have an easy answer. We're just going to have to make sure we clear pucks well, and adding two veteran defensemen like Klee and Witt into the lineup is obviously going to help it, but it will take more than that."
Capitals Notes: Jagr led Washington with 36 goals and 77 points, two fewer points than he posted last season and five more goals. Jagr, who scored 121 points in his final season with Pittsburgh, finished 20th in the NHL in points and 12th in goals. . . . Sergei Gonchar finished with 67 points, second to Al MacInnis (68 points) of St. Louis among NHL defensemen. Gonchar's 18 goals tied for tops among all defensemen; the last Washington defenseman to score that many points was Kevin Hatcher in 1992-93 (79 points). . . . Enforcer Stephen Peat did not practice, suffering from a minor back injury. Forwards Alex Henry, Ivan Ciernik and Josh Green and defensemen J.F. Fortin, Rick Berry and Boumedienne are also set to begin the playoffs as scratches. . . . Junior hockey goalie Robert Gherson, a 2002 draft pick, began working out with the Capitals yesterday and will shoulder some of the practice load from starter Olaf Kolzig in the postseason.