At the NHL All-Star Game last month, everyone talked about how lucky Washington Capitals right wing Peter Bondra was to be playing on a line with Eric Lindros and John LeClair. No one considered that Lindros and LeClair might have been the lucky ones.
Bondra won the league's goal-scoring title during the 1995 lockout-shortened season and leads the Capitals in scoring this season with 32 goals and 56 points, but he remains the NHL's most unrecognized offensive force.
"Yeah, I won the goal scoring, but it was short season," Bondra said. "I would have liked that season to have been 82 games so I could show everybody that I really could do it.
"This year, I have to do the same thing even better -- maybe 40 or 50 goals, if I can stay healthy. Maybe after that, everyone will recognize me as goal scorer. But you've got to be healthy."
This season, teamed again with Michal Pivonka, he is doing the same things he did last season, and doing them more often and more consistently.
Saturday, the two produced 11 points and led the Caps back from a three-goal deficit to a 6-5 overtime win against the New York Islanders.
Comebacks have become a Caps trademark, thanks to the production of Bondra (32 goals, 20 assists) and Pivonka (eight, 38), who have produced a quarter of the team's offense.
They are the Caps' Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Pivonka hammers out the music and Bondra provides the lyrics, the goals, that thrill the fans.
"Rogers and Hammerstein or bacon and eggs," said Caps general manager David Poile. "They just go together. Each can be successful all on his own, but together they appear to be much more."
At the start of last season, Joe Juneau centered a line with Bondra. Yesterday, he talked about their how their styles didn't mesh and how well Bondra's and Pivonka's do.
"They think alike," said Juneau. "If you watch them, you will see Peter carrying the puck, giving it to Pivo, leaving the play and then coming back into the play uncovered. And at that point, you will see Pivo pass him the puck without even looking. He just knows Peter will be there.
"There probably is not a better center for Peter in the NHL than Pivonka. It's a great chemistry. It's the kind of chemistry I want to have on my line."
And there probably isn't a better right wing for Pivonka than Bondra, either.
"I can't think of any other center/wing combination in the NHL that works together and combines their talents the way they do," said Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld, ticking off several, including Philadelphia's Lindros and LeClair. "It's Peter's speed and quickness and Michal's ability to see the ice well, think ahead and give Peter the puck where he can be most dangerous."
L Yet they are no doubt the most overlooked tandem in the NHL.
"If you look at last year and this year," said Poile, "Peter is probably the most consistent goal-scorer in the league."
As for Pivonka, he is 12th among individual assists leaders this season. "It's an easy game playing with Pivo," said Bondra. "We've been playing here five years, mostly together. We know what each other is going to do."
But it wasn't always this way. After the 1993-94 season, Bondra wasn't even sure there would be a place for him with the Caps.
There had been moments of brilliance, like the Feb. 5, 1994, game in which he scored five goals against Tampa Bay, tying the club record and setting an NHL mark for the fastest four goals by one player (4:12). But he had also suffered a broken hand, missed 12 games and finished the season with 24 goals, 13 fewer than 1992-93.
"I felt the pressure," he said yesterday before practice. "I wasn't sure of my place on the team. I thought about it a lot. And I worked hard to prepare for the next season. I wanted to get stronger, more fit. I knew [Schoenfeld] wanted everyone to be more physical.
"So I came in and tried to play a stronger game. I thought if I wanted to stay on the team, I'd have to change. I told myself I might be on the bench, not in the lineup, and if that happened, then when I got my chance I was going to go on the ice and show I want to play hard."
After 15 games at the start of last season, he had moved from the fourth line, to a line with Pivonka and Dimitri Khristich.
Khristich is gone, replaced by Keith Jones, but nothing else has changed.
Bondra and Pivonka are on the ice almost all the time, playing power play and penalty killing, as well as even-strength situations.
"Peter simply got better," said Pivonka.
As for Pivonka, he shrugs, "Maybe I just matured," he said. "I don't know."
"Michal has always played at a high level," said Schoenfeld. "And Peter made a choice and a commitment to his teammates and to himself to get stronger and faster. When you're in better shape and quicker, then when you get hooked you have the ability to shake the guy off or you're by the man before he can hook you."
And that, said the coach, puts him in position to benefit from Pivonka's vision and skill.
Goals per game during the past two seasons among NHL players with at least 55 goals:
Player .... .... .... Go. .... Ga. .... GPG
Bondra, Was. .... ... 66 ..... 87 ..... .759
Jagr, Pit. .... ..... 73 ..... 99 ..... .738
Lindros, Phi. ... ... 62 ..... 90 ..... .689
Sakic, Col. .... .... 68 ..... 103 .... .660
Mogilny, Van. ... ... 61 ..... 94 ..... .649
Hull, St.L. .... .... 59 ..... 91 ..... .648
Sandstrom, Pit. ..... 56 ..... 98 ..... .571
Fleury, Cal. .... ... 56 ..... 99 ..... .566