Capitals pick up scent, trying to sniff out title


Washington Capitals general manager David Poile closes his eyes and sees the Stanley Cup.

"It's the only goal we have every year," Poile said before the Caps left for tonight's season opener in Toronto. "Hopefully, this year, we'll get it."

Poile has seen the vision before. He has seen it almost every year for a decade. Last season, when the Caps had the Pittsburgh Penguins down three games to one in the first round of the playoffs, he said, he believed he was about to touch it. Now, he winces just a little at the memory.

"I think, sometimes, that it does enter your head that you've had these thoughts, expectations before," he said, recalling the

numbing Pittsburgh rally that vaulted the Penguins toward the Cup. "But I really want to believe that the best team wins the Stanley Cup and that, when we're the best, we will win it. Last year, we weren't good enough. On paper, right now, we look like one of the teams with a real chance."

The words Stanley Cup act as a stimulus for the Capitals.

"We've gotten a little sniff of it a couple times," defenseman Kevin Hatcher said. "We've done everything to get there. With our depth this season, it has to be our goal. We're solid in every position, and with so much four-on-four play, the special teams will be more of a factor, and ours are among the best."

But mention the NHL championship to Caps coach Terry Murray, and his face hardens. He is painfully aware of expectations.

"Some people have already called for my job if we don't win the Stanley Cup," Murray said. "We'll just have to wait and see how things go. It's tough to say we have a better team than last year, but we have a good team with good talent, good depth, good blue-line corps and goaltender. You know, last season was a terrific year. . . but we didn't finish it well.

"The most important thing is how you do postseason. We want to finish strong. When we're in a 3-1 series, no matter who we're playing, we want to finish them off this year,rather than be the team that's going to stand there or sit back and end up wishing other things had happened."

Over the summer, Poile has shaken up his roster and given Murray a stronger hand in terms of depth and flexibility.

It's a good thing he did. When left wing Dimitri Khristich suffered a broken right foot Saturday while blocking a shot in a 5-2 exhibition loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, it meant the Capitals would start the season without the three top scorers from last year's 45-27-8 team.

Gone are Dino Ciccarelli (38 goals, traded), Randy Burridge (26 goals, knee surgery) and Khristich, who had 36 goals. That's 100 goals that have to be made up.

"We shouldn't even be thinking about that," said team captain Rod Langway. "They're not playing, and we have to live with it. Our acquisitions -- [Bobby] Carpenter, [Pat] Elynuik -- are experienced and mature, and they should fill the void. And you've got to remember, we're still a great defensive club."

Langway will be paired with Al Iafrate on one defensive line. Calle Johansson and Kevin Hatcher will be on another, and Jason Woolley, the Canadian Olympian who played 15 games with the Skipjacks last season, will team with Brad Schlegel. Michael Boback was recalled from the Skipjacks yesterday to provide a reserve, and defenseman Ken Sabourin was re-assigned to the Jacks.

"We simply have to adjust," said Murray, when asked what effect the loss of Khristich will have. "David [Poile] made some good moves in the off season to bring in good players.

"Pat Elynuik is highly skilled, and he's going to fit right in. Carpenter fits in and he can score and Reggie Savage has been a productive goal scorer for the Skipjacks for two years and he'll be given a chance here."

Elynuik, who joined the team Thursday in the trade that sent John Druce to Winnipeg, will play on a line with left wing Kelly Miller and center Mike Ridley.

"It takes a few games to find out how our games all fit together," said Ridley.

"The start of the season is important," said Murray, whose team started 17-5 a year ago. "But we've had a great regular season and come away disappointed in the playoffs. This year, our emphasis is to get ourselves ready to play well in the postseason."

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