Caps Win Home Opener

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

The night began with the Washington Capitals raising last season's Southeast Division championship banner to the rafters at Verizon Center.

The crowd roared; the players smiled.

Then, less than a half minute later, relative silence. The Chicago Blackhawks scored on their first shot against José Théodore, who yielded another of questionable quality about 11 minutes later.

Fortunately for Théodore, his less-than-stellar start didn't end up costing the Capitals for a second straight game. The goalie steadied himself and Washington's explosive offense tallied four consecutive goals -- two from most valuable player Alex Ovechkin -- in a 4-2 victory last night before a sellout crowd of 18,277 that elicited as much relief as joy in the home locker room.

"It didn't start the way I wanted, even yesterday in Atlanta," said Théodore, who made 19 saves. "At one point, you try to do too much, and it affects your play. Tonight when they scored two goals I said to myself, 'Go out there and play like you can.' From there I did my part and the guys did the rest. I knew that if I allowed only two goals, we would come back. And that's exactly what happened."

The game was deadlocked 2-2 deep into the third period as surprise Chicago starter Nikolai Khabibulin almost single-handedly kept the Blackhawks in the game. But he couldn't keep Brooks Laich from getting the winner with 4 minutes 27 seconds left.

Knocked down by Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell during a scramble in front, Laich got just enough of his stick on a rebound from Alexander Semin to poke it across the goal line. After a lengthy review, the goal was allowed to stand.

"I thought Semin scored it," said Laich, who was wearing a red hardhat given to him by captain Chris Clark. "Just crash the net and good things are going to happen. Whether it was by an inch or six inches, we'll take it."

Asked about the hat, Laich said: "It's something new. It goes to the guy who works hard and does something to help the team win. He also said I have to wear it for all interviews."

Less than three minutes after Laich's goal, Ovechkin ripped a shot past Khabibulin to clinch the win, which was enormous for the Capitals considering their meltdown Friday in Atlanta, where Théodore yielded four goals on 17 shots and the Thrashers won, 7-4.

"We were cognizant of last night in Atlanta where we were tied 4-4 going into the third and gave up three goals in three minutes," Laich added. "We wanted bounce back, not lose two in a row, and get a big win."

After registering 10 shots in the first period, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the Blackhawks, who, like the Capitals, are a young team many expect to take the next step in their evolution, mustered only 11 the rest of the way. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau praised the forechecking effort of his fourth line of Donald Brashear, David Steckel and Matt Bradley.

Théodore's second meltdown in two nights began early in his home debut.

Just 26 seconds into the game, Kris Versteeg raced around defenseman Tom Poti and fired a wrist shot between Théodore's pads from about 20 feet out. Théodore opened his pads as he moved laterally and Versteeg wasted little time picking his spot. It was the first shot of the game and already the Capitals were behind 1-0. On Friday, the Thrashers scored on their third shot.

Jack Skille's goal wasn't pretty, either. Théodore, who was screened by Milan Jurcina, stopped Skille's first shot, but the rebound kicked back out to Skille, who snapped it between Théodore's pads from a tight angle.

The Blackhawks had the Capitals reeling, but they failed to finish them off.

At 13:26 of the first, Bradley out-skated defenseman Matt Walker to the slot, where he snagged a sweet cross-ice pass from Steckel and tapped it past Khabibulin.

Khabibulin stopped Ovechkin on a breakaway in the final minute of the first period, but Ovechkin redeemed himself early in the second period. On the rush, Ovechkin fired the puck between Campbell's skates and Khabibulin's pads to draw the Capitals even at 2.

Théodore kept it that way until the offensive reinforcements arrived.

"I just felt bad for Theo," Boudreau said of the start. "I knew he wanted more than anyone to start tonight and redeem himself for his new teammates."

Capitals Note: Khabibulin got the start instead of Cristobal Huet, the goalie who carried Washington to the division title late last season but bolted for a more lucrative contract offer from the Blackhawks in July. Huet got the night off after starting Friday night against the Rangers in New York, where the Blackhawks lost, 4-2.

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