Now when push comes to shove, Capitals will be pushing back Newcomers give team more clout HOCKEY


WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Over the past 11 seasons, the Washington Capitals have produced the fifth-best record in the NHL and have lost in the first round of the playoffs five times.

In that time, they've never had an offensive star to lead them to a title, and as they begin their 20th season here tonight, they still don't.

But maybe the Capitals have the next best thing -- toughness.

"I thought part of our problem last season was that we were intimidated," said coach Terry Murray. "I think, sometimes, it helps to have the loaded gun on the bench."

A year ago, the Capitals seemed in some kind of reverse universe. The defensemen scored -- Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate and Sylvain Cote became the NHL's first defensive trio on the same team to score more than 20 goals each -- and forwards Alan May, Dale Hunter, Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller played defense.

Watching the Capitals this season may be like watching a new edition of the old Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia. Iafrate, Cote and Hatcher still may go forward, but newly acquired defenseman Enrico Ciccone will be staying home to help Alan May deliver a bigger physical impact.

They'll get help from centers Keith Acton and Dave Poulin, who will try to fill the void left by Dale Hunter, who is serving a 21-game suspension for a late hit on New York Islander Pierre Turgeon in last spring's playoffs. Another new forward is Craig Berube, who had four goals, eight assists and 209 penalty minutes last season with the Calgary Flames.

The newcomers are here to deliver a number of messages -- some obvious, others not.

"Washington wanted some toughness," said Berube, who will be teamed with May and Acton. "They know I'm a tough guy, but I bring other things, too. I bring leadership. I play hard and go to the net. If a fight has to be done, then I do it. You need physical to win.

"Look at the teams who win. Pittsburgh takes the body. They'll take a good hit to make a play. You've got to be willing to stand in there and take abuse. You've got to have guys who will go to the wall for you, take a cross check and stick his head in front of the net to score a goal -- guys who won't back down, who won't take anything from anyone out there.

"You do that, you establish that, and teams will know it's going to be tough, that it's not going to be an easy game, that they're not just going to waltz us to sleep. It's not going to be like that."

They are here to play in-your-face hockey. They are here to win the battles along the boards and down deep, around the Capitals' goal. They are here to protect the Capitals' offensive players -- Michal Pivonka, Dimitri Khristich and Peter Bondra.

"We only had one true hitter last season, and it didn't rub off on the rest of our team," said May, the one true hitter. "You need a guy on every line. You need the power of numbers. These guys are going to make Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate more physical. We had guys hitting in preseason who never hit before."

They are going to allow Ridley, who was Washington's second-leading point scorer despite his concentration on defense, to spend his energy producing goals. Ridley will start on a line with Khristich and Pat Elynuik and probably will see less time on the penalty-killing unit.

"I want our forwards to go in there, be willing to take a hit, hold a position and know if they hold it just a little longer, something will happen and help will come," said Murray.

Khristich, Pivonka and Bondra are waiting to see how much this will help, though all three are expected to increase their scoring.

"If these players are not on my line, how are they going to open up space for me?" said Khristich.

The answer, says Murray, is that any defender taking cheap shots at Washington forwards will pay. Maybe not immediately, but before the game is over, a payback will be delivered. The hope is once that message gets out, some opposing players may think twice, and the instant it takes to rethink may be all Washington needs to score.

"We're going to be there looking over their shoulders," said Ciccone, who came to Washington from the Minnesota North Stars. "The forwards can believe in us. There will always be someone to look after them -- me, Craig, Keith. If that means each of them can increase his production 10 or 15 goals, that's terrific. That's the whole idea. That's how we go all the way."

If all this tough talk and physical play seems opposed to the NHL's directive ordering a crackdown on violence, the Capitals don't see it that way. They say they can play physical hockey without crossing the line.

And in the Eastern Conference -- in which Washington will be competing for one of eight playoff spots -- the move toward toughening up may appear a simple matter of self-defense.

The New York Rangers have hired coach Mike Keenan, whose teams have been known for their physical play. The Islanders showed during last spring's playoffs that they have every intention of being physical.

"It's no baby's game," the Islanders' Darius Kasparaitis said time and again last season, after delivering hard hits on any forward -- famous or otherwise -- who passed by.

The Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques seem ready for combat.

"I'm glad the bigger, stronger players are here, because they will help," said Bondra, who led the Capitals in goals. "But the only thing I know is that I have to play the same way I played last year and a little bit better. I know they want me to score 50 goals. I had 37 last year and a lot of chances, so I don't see why not. I am not afraid to go for 50."

Poulin, who is likely to be paired with Kelly Miller and Keith Jones, is here to provide leadership and incentive.

"I see a bunch of guys who want to win," said Poulin. "I know everyone seems to think the expectations are tied to the end of the year rather than the year itself, but we've got a lot of building to do before we get there."

Poulin said he doesn't have time for Washington's past playoff woes. Only this season matters.

"There is a certain respect factor in this league," Poulin said. "Some guys take liberties they shouldn't take with some players -- now they won't. I'd say presence is perception. You talk about toughening up, I was once called 'a gritty.' A teacher once wrote on my hockey card, 'Dave Poulin is a gritty.' End of sentence. I take it as a compliment."

If someone calls the Caps a gritty at the end of this season, they'll no doubt view it the same way.

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