Capitals test waters against 'Hawks Pollin's personal touch sets season-opening scene

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington Capitals goalie Jim Carey has heard the predictions and seen the preseason reviews. The Capitals are supposed to be the fifth-best team in the National Hockey League and one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup.

"Five months ago, we were physically beaten up going into the playoffs and no one gave us even a small chance of beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs," said Carey, who earned the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie in the regular season.

"Now, we're said to be the fifth-best team in the league. It's just much too early to say what our team is going to do or how the season is going to go."

The Capitals will begin finding out the answers tomorrow night at USAir Arena in their season-opener against the Chicago Blackhawks.

But already this season is off to a different kind of start. Earlier this week, team owner Abe Pollin had the Capitals to his home in Bethesda for dinner, and there was no mistaking the reason.

"Some folks in the media have sort of thought, written or said that Pollin really cares more for the basketball team, the Bullets, than he does the Capitals," Pollin said. "I'm here to tell you unequivocally that's incorrect. The Capitals are just as important to me as the Bullets.

"Sure, when I got the team and the franchise in 1972, the truth is I'd never been to a hockey game. But I've grown to love the game and the involvement with you guys. I just want to repeat that this is a way for me to show you're very important to me -- and you are."

The Capitals listened to their owner, and center Joe Juneau, who has made a rapid recovery from a broken wrist and is expected to be in the lineup tomorrow, seemed to reflect the feelings of his teammates.

"It was great that he had us to his house," Juneau said. "When he speaks, I think he means what he says. I don't really know him personally, like some of the other guys do but I never had a team owner calling me at home when I was injured, and he actually called me at home last week.

"So did David Poile and the coaches. It's a sign that even though it's a big business, they care about the people side of it and that could actually carry us a long way because it means a lot."

What is expected to carry the Capitals on the ice -- once again -- is their defense. It is a defense that rivals all others in the league in terms of depth and ability: Calle Johansson, Mark Tinordi, Sylvain Cote, Sergei Gonchar, Joe Reekie, Phil Housley and Brendan Witt.

The addition of Housley, the encyclopedia's definition of an offensive defenseman, also adds strength to the team's power play. Housley had 51 assists last season while playing with Calgary and New Jersey. He will log major ice time on the special team and is expected to inject life into a unit that was anything but special a year ago, being held to one goal or fewer in 69 games.

The Capitals have 50-goal scorer Peter Bondra, who had 52 goals last season, on a line with team-leading point man Michal Pivonka and rookie Richard Zednik. But their second-leading scorer, Steve Konowalchuk, who is coming off a career-high 23-goal performance, was placed on the injured-reserve list yesterday for at least seven days with separated rib cartilage.

And so, despite Bondra's emergence, a familiar question presents itself to Pollin and Poile: Is Washington going to trade for a major goal-scorer to create a two-line attack?

"David and I talk about this every day," Pollin said. "We want another scorer. He's looking and, if we can find someone out there who can help us, we're going after him."

Poile tried to obtain Jeremy Roenick, Brendan Shanahan and Pat LaFontaine, among others, during the off-season.

"It seems I'm involved in every deal that comes down the pike," Poile said, "and that's because we've been saying that we're interested in getting an offensive player. To say we're close is a stretch right now. But we continue to look."

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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