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Kozlov Leads Washington Capitals to Win

Washington Capitals' Viktor Kozlov, left, of Russia, celebrates with teammate Alex Ovechkin, right, also of Russia, after scoring a goal St. Louis Blues goalie Ben Bishop during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Washington Capitals' Viktor Kozlov, left, of Russia, celebrates with teammate Alex Ovechkin, right, also of Russia, after scoring a goal St. Louis Blues goalie Ben Bishop during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis Alvarez - AP)

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

Viktor Kozlov has a new nickname: The Unsung Russian.

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On a team that features stars Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov, it is sometimes easy to overlook Kozlov's contributions. But that was not easy to do last night.

Kozlov recorded his first two-goal game in 11 months and set up another to lift the Capitals to a 4-2 win over the struggling St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center, where they improved to an Eastern Conference-best 13-1-1.

"He's the unsung Russian," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He just goes out and does his business. When he's on top of his game, you don't see him hitting a lot, but he's strong as an ox. He gets things done."

The Capitals also received goals from Ovechkin and Tomas Fleischmann, whose 11th established a new career high, while goaltender Simeon Varlamov, in his second career start, was occasionally spectacular in making 29 saves to help Washington equal a season-best five-game winning streak and send the Blues to their fifth straight loss. Varlamov's father, Alexander, saw his son play in the NHL for the first time.

"I thought it was more difficult to play at home than on the road because you want to win in front of your home fans," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "As for my father, I was trying not to think about it. It's great because his dream was realized, to see me play in the NHL."

But while the Capitals celebrated win No. 20 -- it's the first time since the 1992-93 season that they reached 20 victories before Jan. 1 -- there was plenty of concern about two stars. Neither Semin nor Mike Green finished the game.

Semin left in the third period after taking a nasty cross-check across the small of his back from David Backes along the sideboards. Semin did not return to the game and was in considerable pain when he left the ice. He was later spotted walking gingerly out of the building.

"It was just above the protection part of the pad," Boudreau said. "He just missed [12] games because of that."

Green, meantime, aggravated the shoulder injury that recently caused him to miss 11 games. He hur t himself while checking David Perron while Perron chased him behind the net. Green did not play in the second half of the third period.

"I just got hit in a funny way," Green said. Asked if he thought he was going to miss any more time, he smiled and said, "I ain't dead, and it ain't broken."

St. Louis also knows a thing or two about injuries to key players. The Blues were without starting goaltender Manny Legace, defenseman Eric Brewer and three of their top six forwards, including Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald. They were so banged up, two defensemen, Jonas Junland and Tyson Strachan, made their NHL debuts, while goaltender Ben Bishop played in only his fifth game.

If the injuries and inexperience didn't doom the Blues against a surging Capitals team, Kozlov's performance did.

Although the shots were tied at 11 after 20 minutes, the Capitals controlled the game early and Kozlov's goal at 16 minutes 14 seconds put his team ahead 1-0.

Kozlov settled a bouncing puck in the corner, made a strong move on the goal line around defenseman Roman Polak, then snapped a wrist shot off Bishop's arm.

But after Kozlov's first goal, the Capitals appeared far too casual, even lackadaisical, particularly on the power play, which allowed the Blues to get back into the game on a redirection by Backes midway through the second period.

The Capitals were awarded back-to-back power plays after Backes's goal, but they were not able to pull away. The unit finished 1 for 5 and drew Boudreau's ire.

But just when it seemed the Blues might seize the momentum, Kozlov fired in a rebound on a play that began with his deft pass to a cutting Boyd Gordon. Bishop stopped Gordon's shot, but the goalie lost his balance and the location of the puck. Kozlov, though, saw it all the way and put the Capitals ahead 2-1 at 17:06.

"That was the turning point of the game," he said. "But we have to work on the power play."

Forty seconds later, before the crowd of 18,277 had settled down, Fleischmann scored to stake the Capitals to a 3-1 lead.

In the third period, Ovechkin scored No. 20 on the power play 13 seconds in to put the Capitals ahead, 4-1, and the game, effectively, out of reach. Ovechkin became the ninth Capital to record four straight 20-goal seasons.

Midway through the period, when Semin was crossed-checked from behind by Backes along the boards and went down, writhing in pain, Ovechkin, his countryman and close friend, came to Semin's aid, returning the favor to Backes. No penalty was called on the play, and the crowd chanted "Ovie!" for his act of retribution.

"It's still before Christmas," Boudreau said when asked if the Capitals had hit their stride. "I think we can play a lot better."


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