Caps expect Bondra back for opener tonight Team's top goal scorer needed vs. upstart Ottawa


Peter Bondra left the ice a good half hour before his teammates yesterday, but the smile on his face said more than his early departure from practice.

"I feel great," he said, when asked about the sprained ankle that severely limited his play in the Washington Capitals' first-round NHL series with the Boston Bruins. "My ankle is 100 percent, but Coach [Ron Wilson] told me to rest it. By game time, I'll be bursting to play."

The Caps need Bondra, their 52-goal scorer, at his best and his teammates to be sharp to advance past the upstart Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which resume tonight.

Seeds 1, 2 and 3 were eliminated in the first round, leaving the No. 4 Caps as the highest remaining seed in the Eastern Conference. Now they must try to do what the No. 1 New Jersey Devils couldn't: beat No. 8 Ottawa.

The best-of-seven conference semifinals begin tonight at the MCI Center.

Increasing the challenge: the Senators' penchant for beating Washington. Ottawa and No. 2 goalie Ron Tugnutt are 7-1 over the past two years, holding the Caps to 0.96 goals a game. Despite Tugnutt's success, No. 1 goalie Damian Rhodes, who held New Jersey to 1.80 goals a game, is expected to start.

"We couldn't beat the Bruins during the regular season, either," said Wilson, whose team was 1-3-1 against Boston this season but won the playoff series, 4-2. "This is going to be a long, hard series. It's wide-open in the East. You can win the Stanley Cup if you stay focused. It comes down to how you're playing at the moment and taking advantage of your chances."

The Capitals must beat Ottawa's trapping defense and slow down a young, fast team that beat the Devils with furious forechecking and blitzing counterattacks.

"I think if you're in good position defensively, it's tough [for an opponent] to utilize speed," said Washington center Adam Oates. "We've got to make sure our defensemen close the gap on their forwards and make sure our forwards stay close to their defensemen. And then we have to be able to wait."

Oates said that the trap builds frustration and causes opposing teams to make mistakes.

"My line could do nothing for 80 minutes in Game 3 against Boston," Oates said. "But finally, Joe [Juneau] scored the game-winner. That's how it works. You've got to be willing to be patient."

NOTES: The Caps will assign Esa Tikkanen, who smothered Boston's leading scorer, Jason Allison, to shadow Ottawa's high-scoring Alexei Yashin. Caps defenseman Jeff Brown (headaches) may return tonight. Brown strengthens the power play with a right-handed shot at the point. The Caps were called "old and tired" more than once during the Boston series, but the tag only makes Oates, 34, laugh. "Me and Dale [Hunter] were the only two guys to play every game this season," Oates said. "I'd say this team isn't tired. Most of this team missed half the season with injuries. We're probably the freshest team in the league."

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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