By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
NEWARK, Feb. 3 -- This season has been a difficult one for Washington Capitals center Michael Nylander.
Trade rumors swirled around the veteran in training camp. Then he endured a 25-game goal drought that spanned mid-October through mid-December. There's also the three games in which he was scratched. But there have been some subtle indications in recent contests, Coach Bruce Boudreau said, that point to the possibility of Nylander being on the verge of a turnaround.
More proof of that came Tuesday night at Prudential Center, where Nylander recorded his first two-goal game in more than a year to help the Capitals clinch a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils in a meeting of division leaders.
"The last few games he's picked it up," Boudreau said. "And that's good. If we can get Michael playing the way he's used to playing, it makes us a dangerous team offensively."
In the past nine games, Nylander has recorded four goals and four assists, which is by far his most productive stretch. And his breakout game couldn't have come at a better time for the Capitals, who needed a late surge to pull out their third consecutive victory and snap the Devils' eight-game winning streak. Washington now owns a three-point edge on New Jersey in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's never too late to do it again," Nylander, 36, said with a smile when he was told it was his first multi-goal game since Dec. 29, 2007. "It's important how you feel inside. And I feel comfortable. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, try to shoot more, go to the net more and things can happen."
The Capitals also got a 3-for-4 performance from the power play, 32 saves from José Theodore and another tally from defenseman Mike Green, who scored for the fourth straight game and added an assist to push his league-leading totals among defensemen to 16 and 42.
But all the news was not good for Washington. One day after losing captain Chris Clark to a season-ending injury, veteran forward Viktor Kozlov did not return for the second period because of groin tweak, an injury he suffered while falling awkwardly in the first period. Kozlov is listed as day-to-day, but Boudreau said he does not believe the injury to be serious.
Serious or not, it put serious strain on the Capitals' bench for the remainder of the game. But Boudreau and his players managed to overcome Kozlov's absence -- and the havoc it caused -- thanks to one of their best first-period performances of the season.
The Capitals raced out to a 3-0 lead on goals by Green, Brooks Laich and Nylander. The Devils, though, rallied on strikes by Brian Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner, whose short-handed tally in the third period trimmed the lead to 3-2 in front of a generously announced crowd of 14,018 on a snowy night.
But it's as a close as New Jersey would get. Theodore made 16 stops in the third period and Nylander restored the Capitals' two-goal cushion when he fired a wrist shot on the power play from the circle past Scott Clemmensen (21 saves) with about nine minutes left to play.
"I feel pretty good every game," Nylander said. "But it's starting to come more and more. It's good."
Green's first-period goal was his 12th on the power play, and it came the way so many have. The smooth-skating defenseman sneaked through the backdoor, accepted a slick circle-to-circle pass from Alexander Semin and snapped the puck past Clemmensen to put the Capitals ahead, 1-0.
"I have great teammates who can pass the puck better than most in the league," Green said. "You look at the pass Semin gave me, I just had to go upstairs with it."
About two minutes later, Laich scored his first goal in 14 games, also on the man advantage, to extend the Capitals' lead to 2-0. Then only 2 minutes 16 seconds into the second period, Nylander made it 3-0 when he jammed a loose puck between Clemmensen and the post after Boyd Gordon had lost control of it.
Although the Capitals recorded three power play goals for the first time since Dec. 12, don't count Boudreau among those impressed with its execution.
"Our power play was great and stinky at the same time," he said. "We never had any possession of [the puck] but we scored three times. But we'll take it because the numbers look good."
The win was no doubt a big one for the Capitals. But the resurgence of Nylander could be even bigger.
"He's potentially one of our top forwards," Green said of Nylander. "He's been finding his game in the 'D' zone, and now he's starting to find it offensively."
Capitals Notes: Goaltender Brent Johnson did not travel after aggravating a nagging injury Sunday. Johnson has been bothered by a hip ailment for most of the season. With Johnson out, prospect Michal Neuvirth was recalled from Hershey to back up Theodore. . . . Matt Bradley, who has one goal in his past 30 games, was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.