Going nowhere, Caps, Flyers make U-turns


VOORHEES, N.J. -- The Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals say they don't pay much attention to each other. But if they did, they might think they were looking in a mirror.

Usually at this time of the year the Caps and Flyers are battling for a playoff spot, with Washington having had the better of it the past few seasons. The Flyers haven't been in the playoffs in five years.

But going into today's game at USAir Arena, things are a lot different. The Flyers are first in the Atlantic Division and the Caps are second, just five points behind. And the way they got to be the two hottest teams in the NHL is surprisingly similar.

They both started badly, Washington going 3-10-5 and the Flyers 3-6-1.

But then, on Feb. 9, the Flyers worked a deal with Montreal that sent Mark Recchi to the Canadiens for left wing John LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins and left wing Gilbert Dionne. The result has been that Desjardins has anchored the defense and LeClair has spurred a point-scoring burst that has generated a 13-4-2 run for Philadelphia.

And, on March 2, the Capitals called up rookie goalie Jim Carey, put him in against the New York Islanders, and proceeded to go on a 9-1-1 tear.

"It's a very big game," LeClair said yesterday after the Flyers' practice here. "They're much improved. They're a playoff team right now and it's a nice challenge to play against someone who's playing so well. It's going to be fun."

Fun took awhile coming to Philadelphia. Since center Eric Lindros arrived three years ago at the cost of six players, two first-round draft choices and $15 million, the Flyers have been expected to win.

But Terry Murray, the former Capitals coach who was named Flyers coach June 23, said getting Lindros had deprived the team of its depth.

"We knew we had to make some kind of a move and add depth to our organization," said Murray. "We still don't have a lot of depth, but when the opportunity came to get three good players for Mark Recchi, we knew we had to make the deal.

"But did we know it would work? No. We hoped."

Hopes have become reality. With LeClair on Lindros' left and Mikael Reneberg on his right, the line has been too big, too hot and too fast for most to handle. In Philly, there is a debate over what to call them: Doom, Gloom and Zoom, the Legion of Doom, the JEM (John, Eric, Mikael) line.

The line has been phenomenal, producing 97 points in 19 games. LeClair has 31 of them with 17 goals and 14 assists.

"There's no doubt they allowed us to win," Murray said. "They came up with a couple of big efforts. There's no doubt one line starting to play well creates confidence for everyone else, and it spreads."

Said LeClair: "It's not just because I've been here. This is a team that had a lot of talent, and we came in at an opportune time. We've been on a little bit of a hot streak, but we've got to keep playing well if we want it to continue.

"But just playing with Eric and Mikael makes you want to push yourself that much more. They're so talented, you don't want to let them down."

While LeClair had only five points in nine games in Montreal, Murray says the fact that the Canadiens played him at center and forced him "to push his creativity" has helped him here.

LeClair sees the ice well and Lindros and Reneberg have benefited from the picks his big body has allowed him to set up. Lindros has 19 goals and 27 assists to lead the team -- and the NHL -- and Reneberg (15 goals, 21 assists) and LeClair are tied for second.

"Johnny just came in here and goes hard to the net," said Reneberg. "For me, he's one of the best. He skates. He skates fast. He has great speed, a great shot and he's a big, big part of this team.

"I don't know why it works. We had a tough time before he came. A lot of guys played that wing before Johnny. I can't even remember who the last one was, but since he's been here it has worked.

"We try not to think too much about it. It's worked good so far, but there is a long way to go. Nineteen more games. It's been good together so far. We're at the top of the division, and people around us talk a lot about how far we're going to go in the playoffs. But our main focus from the beginning was to make the playoffs and we have to keep that focus because we haven't made the playoffs yet."

The Capitals' Carey has said this game will be a measuring stick, "to see how far we've come and how much farther we have to go."

Yesterday, the Flyers were thinking much the same thing.


Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 1:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WMAL (630 AM)

Outlook: The Capitals (12-11-6) and the Flyers (16-10-3) meet for the third time this season. The Flyers won the first two meetings, 5-3 and 4-2, but this will be their first look at rookie sensation G Jim Carey. Washington will be without C Kevin Kaminski, who is serving the third game of a three-game suspension for abusing an official during Washington's 4-1 win over the New York Rangers last Saturday, and C Pat Peeke (flu and mononucleosis). Philadelphia reports D Kevin Haller (groin) questionable and LW Brent Fedick (strained neck) out.

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