Capitals Hit the Wrong Notes

Olie Kolzig stops Karel Rachunek on a second-period penalty shot. (Getty Images)
Olie Kolzig stops Karel Rachunek on a second-period penalty shot. (Getty Images)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 -- The New York Rangers' season was in a tailspin. They had dropped seven consecutive games, hadn't netted a goal in a week and struggling captain Jaromir Jagr was admittedly rattled.

Then the injury- and illness-depleted Washington Capitals came to town.

Rangers winger Petr Prucha scored the first of his two goals just minutes into the game and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist took a shutout bid deep into the third period at Madison Square Garden, where the home team put an end to its free-fall, 4-1.

The game had an ugly ending, but it had nothing to do with the Capitals' performance.

Washington's Donald Brashear was ejected after fighting Brendan Shanahan, Brashear's second scrap of the night and fifth in five games. Brashear defeated Shanahan decisively, then dusted off his hands. Shanahan later said he was responding to what he perceived as liberties taken against Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr.

As Brashear was headed to the penalty box, the Rangers' Aaron Ward skated over and had some words for the Capitals' enforcer, who punched him in the face. Brashear was assessed a match penalty for an attempt to injure and could be facing another suspension. He was barred for three games for his role in a brawl with the Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 22.

"I think the opportunity presented itself with some of the things [Brashear] did to Jaromir throughout the game," Shanahan said.

Brashear refused to comment.

"I don't know what Glen [Hanlon's] intention was lining Brashear up against Jags all night long," Rangers Coach Tom Renney said. "When it comes down to it, everybody's got that in their lineup. And we'll do what we have to do in order to ensure the safety of our players."

With 4 minutes 20 seconds left to play, rugged Rangers winger Colton Orr cross-checked Alex Ovechkin in the face, drawing a penalty for charging and a stern response from Shaone Morrisonn. After the Capitals' defenseman accosted Orr, he was assessed a game misconduct and an instigator penalty (and thus could face a one-game suspension). Because the instigator infraction was assessed in the final five minutes of the game, Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon likely will receive an automatic fine of $10,000. Hanlon was fined $30,000 after the Atlanta fracas.

"Dainius Zubrus gets hit over the head, Ovechkin gets his teeth loosened with a cross check and we get the instigator," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "I'm still trying to figure that one out."

Morrisonn added: "Brash gets kicked out of the game, and then [Orr] starts coming after Ovie. It's a gutless move. We have a team that's going to stick up for each other."

Lost in the commotion caused by the late fisticuffs was the fact that Washington's losing streak reached four games, all in the past five days, and all against teams ahead of the Capitals in the Eastern Conference, where they've slipped from sixth to 10th in a matter of days.

For the second consecutive game, the Capitals were missing key players because of a stomach virus that's stricken the team over the past 48 hours, and several others were forced to skate despite feeling its effects.

And that's on top of injuries to three players. It's clearly had a major impact on a lineup that's among the thinnest in the NHL even when it's completely healthy.

The busy schedule, which has already seen Washington play six games in nine nights, won't relent. After getting a day of rest Sunday, the Capitals return to Verizon Center for a 2 p.m. faceoff New Year's Day against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Prucha's first goal put the Rangers ahead 1-0 at 1 minute 55 seconds in and Michael Nylander made it 2-0 at 13:25 in the first period. Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis made it 3-0, and Prucha's second goal, on the power play at 17:23 of the third, made it 4-0.

Ben Clymer ended Lundqvist's shutout bid with 2:29 left to play.

"Brash gets under people's skin," Capitals captain Chris Clark said. "That's what he does, that's what he's good at."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company