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Zubrus Stays Front and Center // Washington Post
Two-Way Player Has Important Role on Top Line
By Tarik El-Bashir
Dainius Zubrus, perhaps the Washington Capitals' best two-way forward, paused for a moment yesterday when he was asked which facet of the game he preferred, scoring or defending?
"There's really no straight answer," Zubrus said. "It's whatever makes a difference. Sometimes it's blocking a shot in the last minute. Sometimes it's scoring a goal. If it happens to be both, then it's even better."
On Saturday, it was the latter that clinched Washington's 3-1 win in Raleigh, N.C. Zubrus was grappling for position in front of the Carolina Hurricanes' net when he inadvertently redirected a shot past goaltender Martin Gerber with his skate.
The goal, Zubrus's 17th of the season and the Capitals' third of the game, not only helped halt an eight-game losing streak, it also equaled the 27-year-old center's career high and gave him 44 points, one more than his previous best established in 2001-02. His plus-minus rating of plus 6 is second on the team.
Goals are nice, Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said, but offense isn't Zubrus's biggest contribution to the Capitals' top forward combination, which is headlined by rookie left wing Alex Ovechkin. Zubrus is the defensive conscience of the line, a responsibility that gives Ovechkin the freedom to freelance.
"That line can play against any line because Zubrus is big, strong, plays well defensively and battles down low," Hanlon said after yesterday's practice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena. "Sometimes you get some higher skilled centermen that aren't prepared to do those things."
Zubrus added: "Playing with Alex, I want to play as safe as possible. I try to be a safety guy, which gives [Ovechkin] the freedom to do whatever pretty much he wants. He takes the puck and tries to beat guys one-on-one. That's why I play the safety role. I know he's going to try to do that."
Hanlon refuted the notion that Ovechkin would have more goals and assists if he skated alongside a center with better set-up skills. Ovechkin, through Sunday's games, ranked second in the NHL in goals with 47 and third in points with 91.
"I'm very defensive about Zubie," Hanlon added. "I don't think Ovie would have better numbers with anybody in the league. [Zubrus] is a big strong guy who brings guys to him and that opens up space for [Ovechkin]."
That said, Hanlon chose his words carefully when asked whether he envisions Zubrus as the long-term center on Ovechkin's line. Zubrus is under contract through the 2006-07 season.
"I'm not going to commit myself to that, or commit the organization to that," the coach said. "Who knows what's going to happen in the future. Right now, I'm very happy with [Ovechkin and Zubrus]. Zubie is firm with Ovie when it comes to doing the right thing all over the ice."
It's common to see Zubrus schooling Ovechkin -- during practice and games -- on the finer points of defensive zone coverage or other subtleties of the NHL game. It helps that Zubrus speaks to the Russian rookie in his native language.
"I understand Zubie," Ovechkin said. "He helps me a lot, on the ice and off the ice. We talk before the game about what we must do. We talk about [different] situations."
Asked to be more specific, Ovechkin smiled and said: "What does he do? He gives me the puck."
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