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Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitals @NHL
Blue Jackets-Capitals Preview

GAME: Columbus Blue Jackets (25-45-8-4) at Washington Capitals (23-46-10-3).

TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.

The Columbus Blue Jackets used the NHL's new salary cap to lure free agents to help emerging star Rick Nash. The Washington Capitals used it to completely overhaul their team around 19-year-old Alexander Ovechkin.

Two teams in different stages of rebuilding start their respective seasons at the MCI Center hoping for a quick start.

Entering their fifth year of existence, the Blue Jackets know there is pressure to reach the playoffs for the first time in history. The pressure was added before the lockout by the success of division rival Nashville, which reached the postseason for the first time in its young history. The new salary cap left general manager Doug MacLean with no excuses, and he was aggressive in keeping Nash, the franchise player, and overhauling a defense which yielded 265 goals in 2003-04.

The Blue Jackets signed a pair of veteran free agent defensemen, Adam Foote and Bryan Berard, to shore up the blue line in different areas. Foote, who won two Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche, brings a physical presence and veteran leadership that is desperately needed.

"He brings so much," captain and fellow defenseman Luke Richardson said. "He has that experience of winning and that will rub off on a team that's not that far away."

Berard signed the day after Foote, and brings an offensive presence to the defense. He had 13 goals and 47 points for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2003-04 season, good for eighth among all defensemen and tops in the Western Conference.

"Bryan brings a level of speed to our blue line that we've never had in the past," MacLean said. "With a more wide-open game coming in the NHL, Bryan should really flourish and we're excited about what he adds to our hockey team."

MacLean also acquired goaltender Martin Prusek from the Ottawa Senators to form a dependable tandem with Marc Denis. Prusek, who backed up Patrick Lalime, went 16-6-3 with the Senators prior to the lockout.

The 21-year-old Nash signed a five-year, $27 million contract in August, ensuring his status as the cornerstone of the franchise. The youth movement continued Monday with the signing of Gilbert Brule, the sixth overall pick in the draft. Brule, who tied for the team lead with five points in the preseason, joins Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby as the only 18-year-olds on opening day rosters.

"He earned a spot on our roster and will be a tremendous complement to the young talent in our organization," MacLean said.

Also up front are 20-year-old Nikolai Zherdev and 20-year-old Dan Fritsche, but the defense corps thinned when 23-year-old Rostislav Klesla, a former first-round pick, suffered a leg injury that will force him to miss the first month of the season.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, tired of paying for high-profile players who did not produce, opted to use the salary cap as his primary means of rebuilding the team around Ovechkin, the No.1 pick in the 2004 draft, goalkeeper Olaf Kolzig and veterans who were more known as role players instead of offensive players.

Ovechkin, a left wing, scored seven goals while helping Russia to a second-place finish in the 2005 World Junior Championships. He played for Moscow Dynamo during the lockout, totaling 13 goals and 39 points. The rest of the offense will feature veteran Jeff Halpern, who led the team with 19 goals and 46 points, Jeff Friesen and Andrew Cassels.

Friesen was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in a salary dump, while Cassels signed as a free agent after spending the last two years with the Blue Jackets.

2003-04 STANDINGS: Blue Jackets - 62 points, 4th place, 47 PB, Central Division. Capitals - 59 points, 5th place, 47 PB, Southeast Division.

2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Blue Jackets - Nash, 41 goals and 57 points; David Vyborny, 33 assists; Jody Shelley, 228 PIM. Capitals - Halpern, 19 goals, 27 assists and 46 points; Darcy Verot, 135 PIM.

2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Blue Jackets - Power play: 14.4 percent (58 for 401), 24th in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.1 percent (287 for 337), 9th. Capitals - Power play: 19.1 percent (64 for 331), 6th. Penalty killing: 81.3 percent (326 for 401), 26th.

2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Blue Jackets - Denis (21-36-7, 5 SO, 2.56 GAA); Fred Brathwaite (4-11-2, 3.37). Capitals - Kolzig (19-35-9, 2, 2.89); Maxime Ouellet (2-3-1, 1, 3.12).

2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Capitals, 1-0.

LAST MEETING: Nov. 29, 2003; Capitals 5-3. At Columbus, Peter Bondra recorded his 19th career hat trick for the Capitals, who are 4-1-1 all-time against the Blue Jackets.

2003-04 HOME/ROAD RECORDS: Blue Jackets - 8-27-4-2 on the road; Capitals - 13-20-6-2 at home.

Associated Press
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