By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 6 -- Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals came to Wachovia Center on Wednesday with one purpose: to finish the job they started in this building 10 weeks ago.
With goals from Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley, and 31 saves from Olie Kolzig, they did just that, leaving with a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers -- and something far more significant.
The Capitals leapfrogged Carolina and Atlanta and moved into first place in the Southeast Division, completing a turnaround in which they have ascended from last place in the NHL in 34 games under Coach Bruce Boudreau.
Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov also scored for Washington, which won for the fourth straight time in Philadelphia despite some tense moments in the final minutes. Mike Knuble, Sami Kapanen and Randy Jones tallied for the Atlantic Division-leading Flyers.
"The last time we were in this building we were in last place and now we're in first place," said Laich, who set a career high with his ninth goal of the season. "We're happy with where we are now, but we can't get complacent. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
That was the predominant theme in the visitors' locker room, that the hard part is yet to come.
"We love the fact that, for a day, the guys have fought all the way back and put themselves in good contention," Boudreau said. "But it's one thing being there and it's another thing staying there. Staying there is usually the hardest part."
Indeed, the Capitals' lead is thin, just one point over the Hurricanes and Thrashers, and they host Carolina on Friday. "It feels good, but we can't get comfortable," said defenseman Mike Green, who had two primary assists.
For a moment, they got too comfortable against the Flyers. Ovechkin jammed in his own rebound to extend the Capitals' lead to 4-1 at 7 minutes 45 seconds of the third period, scoring his league-leading 46th goal of the season. But Philadelphia managed to make this game closer than it should have been.
Kapanen tapped in a rebound with 6:10 remaining to trim Washington's edge to 4-2. Then, with goaltender Martin Biron on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, Jones struck with 54 seconds remaining to make it 4-3. That's as close as the Flyers got, however.
"A lot has changed," Kolzig said. "We were here on Thanksgiving and a lot of people were writing us off. But there is still a lot of work to do. We have another big game on Friday and  more big games after that."
The Capitals' surge in the standings started in this arena on Nov. 23, in Boudreau's first game behind the bench. Boudreau was successful in his debut, thanks to a goal by rookie Nicklas Backstrom, who lifted his team to a 4-3 win in overtime. They've been rolling ever since. Washington is 20-10-4 under Boudreau, who was smiling for another reason after the game: He finally got the "dirty goal" he has sought in recent weeks.
Green's shot from the point caromed off Bradley's knee.
"That one was definitely very ugly," Bradley said. "But that's what we've been talking about."
Kozlov struck 1:04 after Bradley, beating Biron with a perfectly placed shot from the circle to extend the Capitals' lead to 3-1. It was Kozlov's seventh goal in nine games.
The Capitals established themselves early on Wednesday, out-shooting the Flyers, 11-6, in the first period. But Biron (23 saves), and a couple of missed opportunities, made sure the game went to the second scoreless.
That changed early in the second. Kolzig made a critical save on Jeff Carter with his mask, then moments later, Laich scored at 2:31 to put the Capitals ahead 1-0. Laich broke for the net, took a feed in stride from Green and faked Biron to the ice before beating Biron with a high backhander.
"We've changed in that we believe a little bit," Boudreau said, asked to compare the feeling in the locker room Wednesday night to the feeling the last time the Capitals played in Philadelphia. "We believe that we're a real good team now."
Capitals Notes: Right wing Chris Clark (groin muscle tendon) and defenseman Brian Pothier (concussion) remain sidelined. Clark has missed 29 games, Pothier the past 13. . . . Ron Hextall became the 19th player inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame on Wednesday. The former goaltender was honored during two emotional on-ice ceremonies, the first of which included a video tribute and a ceremonial face-off taken by Kolzig and Biron.