WASHINGTON – The 6-foot-4, 253-pound defenseman affectionately known as “Juice” returns to Verizon Center tonight as the Capitals play host to Milan Jurcina and the New York Islanders for the first time this season.
Jurcina is in his second season patrolling the Islanders’ blue line and will hit a personal milestone tonight when he skates in his 400th career NHL game.
The 28-year-old Slovak played in 211 games for the Caps from 2007-09 before he and former captain Chris Clark were traded to Columbus for Jason Chimera. Jurcina then signed with the Islanders in July of 2010.
“It’s been good,” Jurcina says of playing for an Islanders team that sits in last place in the Eastern Conference. “It’s obviously not where we want to be, but we’re working hard and doing everything we can [to improve]. It’s just like when I came to Washington — it’s a process.
“The guys are young, they’re learning the league, so we’re still in a rebuilding mode, but these guys have a lot of potential. There is a lot of talent in this room and a lot of the right tools you need to be successful just as Washington is and was.”
Jurcina arrived in Washington before the 2007 NHL trade deadline, joining a Capitals team that went on to miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
But less than one year later, the Capitals went on to win their first of four straight Southeast Division titles, led primarily by first round draft picks Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. Verizon Center was “Rocking the Red” and a winning culture had been created.
Four years later, Jurcina hopes to be part of a similar turnaround on Long Island.
“When I came down here there was nobody in the stands — just like 10,000 fans — but now for three years already I think they’ve been sold out every game,” he says. “It’s the same thing on Long Island — there haven’t been many fans but now they’re starting to come to the games, they realize we’re having some success so it’s exactly the same process as we had in Washington. We have to keep going and stay patient and good things will happen.”
Just as the Capitals have been built around No. 1 overall pick Ovechkin (2004) and a nucleus of young players, the Islanders are pinning their fortunes on first overall pick John Tavares (2009) and their own nucleus of young talent.
Tavares is the Islanders’ leading scorer this season with 43 points in 43 games and enters play tonight on a career-high nine-game scoring streak (five goals and 16 points over that span).
The 21-year-old will represent the Islanders at this year’s NHL All-Star Game, and has teamed up with fellow first-round pick Kyle Okposo and New York’s leading goal scorer Matt Moulson to form one of the NHL’s best young trios.
“They have the scoring touch those guys — they’re snipers,” Jurcina says. “Every time you can, you just try to get them the puck and good things happen. They have great shots; they know how to move in the offensive zone, they have all the offensive talent so it’s nice to have them on the team.”
Jurcina has two goals and five points in 34 games this season and has played primarily with Islanders captain Mark Streit. Jurcina also has a minus-19 rating, third-worst in the NHL.
The eighth-round pick (241st overall) from the 2001 entry draft says he still keeps in touch with a number of former teammates, but he admits that the Capitals have a much different look since he last called D.C. home.
“We were just down in Anaheim and I saw [former Caps coaches] Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods and it felt like I was playing the Washington Capitals down in California,” Jurcina says. “But when I look at the roster now, there’s been a lot of change, a lot of new guys and new faces.”