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Home-Schooled Again

Capitals Drop MCI Finale With OT Loss to Rangers: Rangers 3, Capitals 2

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page E07

The Washington Capitals acknowledged their fans before, during and after yesterday's home finale against the New York Rangers. Fans watched video tributes, took home sweaty, autographed jerseys, gift certificates, and one of them even won a new SUV.

But once again, the Capitals failed to give their fans a victory. Bruising Rangers center Bobby Holik sent an announced crowd of 16,748 home disappointed when he redirected a pass 68 seconds into overtime, lifting New York to a 3-2 victory.

Jeff Halpern looks to gather puck before scoring one of his two goals against Rangers' Jamie McLennan. (Joe Giza -- Reuters)

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Minor league journeyman Mel Angelstad, a favorite among hardcore Washington Capitals and Portland Pirates fans, spent the past 12 seasons fighting -- literally -- to get a crack at the big time. Yesterday, the 32-year-old enforcer was signed by the Capitals and made his NHL debut against the New York Rangers in Washington's home finale.

A left wing who did not play organized hockey until he was 16 years old, Angelstad wore No. 69 and played on a line with Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Roman Tvrdon. Angelstad even skated with the power-play unit in the third period.

"I can't put into words," said Angelstad, who signed a one-way contract, meaning he cannot return to Portland this season. "When I found out . . . I was in tears. I couldn't believe it. I think my heart rate was like about 210 when I went out there."

Angelstad has played for 10 minor league organizations in five leagues, including a brief stint in a roller-hockey league. He's spent the past three years in Portland, where his biggest responsibility has been to protect the Capitals' top prospects.

Angelstad's pursuit of making the NHL has come at a high cost, physically at least. He once shattered his hand while throwing a punch and has broken his nose three times. Twice Angelstad has exceeded 400 penalty minutes in a season.

"I've been hoping, wishing, praying for a long time," Angelstad said. "With the labor dispute coming up, I didn't know if a guy my age would ever get another chance to play here."

Owner Ted Leonsis had received numerous e-mails in recent days from fans pleading for the team to give Angelstad his shot, a team official said. Angelstad became the 51st player the Capitals have used this season and the 11th player to make his NHL debut in a Capitals uniform.

"He was so emotional when he came here," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "It's a great story." . . .

Because of injury and illness, both teams had only 17 skaters available to play instead of the usual six defensemen and 12 forwards. . . . New York Rangers captain Mark Messier (sore right elbow) did not make the trip to Washington for his team's final game, perhaps his last. . . .

Jaromir Jagr (strained right hip flexor) also was not in uniform for the Rangers. . . . Washington defenseman Josef Boumedienne missed yesterday's game with the flu. . . . Defenseman Jakub Cutta and center Brooks Laich have been returned to Portland of the AHL.

-- Tarik El-Bashir

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Washington's 13 victories on home ice are its fewest since the 1977-78 season, when the four-year-old Capitals won only 10 times. In fact, the Capitals won more home games during the strike-shortened 1994-95 season (15). The Capitals averaged nearly 24 home wins a year from 1999 to 2003. Only Pittsburgh and Phoenix began yesterday with fewer home victories.

"We would love to have won that game," said center Jeff Halpern, who has scored four goals the past three games, including both Washington goals yesterday. "You never want to end [at home] on that note, especially when you don't know when the next game will be. Fans pay a lot of money, and they want to see an honest effort from the players."

If there is a glimmer of hope for fans in this gloomy season, the Capitals are among the draft lottery teams hoping to land the top pick in June's amateur draft. Washington (23-45-10-3) will now finish with the second-, third- or fourth-worst record in the league heading into Tuesday's lottery. The Capitals wrap up the season today in Pittsburgh against the last-place Penguins, who have a 48.2 percent chance of winning it.

After a sloppy, scoreless third period, Washington was knocked on its heels early in the extra session when defenseman Brendan Witt was called for hooking Jan Hlavac as the powerful Rangers winger sped toward the goal.

Twenty-five seconds later, Holik found himself wide open in front of Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig (32 saves). Holik redirected Thomas Pock's cross-ice pass past Kolzig for the deciding score.

"I didn't think I held him up a whole lot," Witt said of the costly penalty. "I think [Hlavac] embellished a bit."

Said Washington Coach Glen Hanlon: "I thought it was a bunch of guys trying hard. What it really shows you is we're a physical and as intimidating a team as there is at the NHL level. It's a good message sent that our organization is going to be built on physical play and hard work. Success will follow. In the end, you still need skill. But I don't mind the way we are playing."

Kolzig, who fell one short of 20 wins, won't start today in Pittsburgh, according Hanlon, who said backup Matthew Yeats will instead get the nod.

One of the few bright spots for Washington the second half of the season has been the play of Halpern, who has 19 goals, eight of which have come the past 14 games. He also has seven assists during that span.

Halpern, a Potomac native and a possible team captain next season, tallied the game's first goal at 7 minutes 54 seconds of the first period. He dislodged the puck from underneath Rangers goalie Jamie McLennan's pads, then poked it into the net.

The Rangers (27-40-7-8) scored the next two goals, the first by center Mike Green off a defensive zone turnover and the other by Holik on a close-range slap shot, to take a 2-1 lead.

Halpern tied the game at 2 at 6:31 of the second period, ripping a slap shot from between the circles past McLennan (22 saves).

While some fans left with assorted freebies, all of them departed with knowledge that they might have just watched their last Capitals game for a while. With the collective bargaining agreement between players and ownership set to expire in September -- the sides reportedly remain far apart on most key issues -- management and players are hunkering down for what may be a protracted lockout.

"We have to look on the positive side," Witt said. "At least we didn't finish last. I didn't want to finish dead last. It still would have been nice to get a win."

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