By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
When Keith Aucoin was recalled from the minor leagues late last month, he was told by Washington Capitals officials to pack for a week. The 30-year-old packed for two -- just in case.
While there is still an internal debate over Aucoin's short-term future in Washington, he's certainly not making the decision easier for management and the coaching staff, especially after being arguably the Capitals' best player in the regular season home finale, a sloppy 6-4 victory over the 27th-place Atlanta Thrashers yesterday.
Aucoin, who led a barrage of scoring from secondary sources, notched his second tally in three games and helped set up the eventual game-winner by stripping the puck from Thrashers all-star Ilya Kovalchuk in the Atlanta zone. By the third period, Aucoin had been promoted to the power-play unit.
"I've done everything they've asked me to do," said Aucoin, who might have scored two goals had he not missed a wide-open net from a tight angle early in the third period. "I go out every shift and work hard. I've been rewarded the last few games. I've just got to keep doing that while I'm here."
Called up from the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears as an injury replacement, Aucoin, all 5 feet 8 and 165 pounds of him, has opened eyes with his dogged work ethic and knack for finding the net. In the past four games, he has two goals and two assists in limited playing time. His offensive production, though, shouldn't come as a complete surprise considering he's tied for the AHL points lead with 94.
Aucoin's unlikely heroics helped the Capitals take sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference with three games to play. Both Washington and New Jersey have three games remaining. Alex Ovechkin, meantime, rebounded from a wretched giveaway on the Thrashers' second goal to record a pair of assists, pulling him within two points of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the race for the scoring title. Malkin was pointless in the Penguins' 4-2 loss to Florida.
But no one would have been talking about Aucoin, Ovechkin's pursuit of Malkin or the second seed had the Capitals not experienced a 180-degree turnaround between the second and third periods. During the second intermission, Coach Bruce Boudreau did something he doesn't do very often: He scolded his players -- loudly.
"Our guys were sleepwalking through the first two periods," Boudreau said. "I hope [screaming at them] wasn't what it took. I hope it opened their eyes. I hope it doesn't take me coming in and screaming and yelling to get us going because we have too many good players for that."
Indeed, the Capitals heard Boudreau loud and clear and came out with the verve that had been lacking in the first 40 minutes.
Michael Nylander tied the score at 3 with his second goal in 19 games and ninth of the season. Then, just 1 minute 21 seconds later, Eric Fehr scored his second goal in 16 games when he flicked the puck over Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg (27 saves) while being dragged down, to put the Capitals ahead 4-3.
Three minutes 16 seconds after that, Aucoin stripped Kovalchuk -- one of the game's best stickhandlers -- fed the puck to Tomas Fleischmann, who slipped the puck to Alexander Semin. Earlier in the game, Fleischmann scored his first goal in 16 games.
But as it turned out, Semin's 31st goal almost wasn't enough. In the final minute, Capitals goaltender José Theodore (20 saves) attempted to clear the puck down the middle of the ice. Instead, he whiffed, and the puck went right to Slava Kozlov, who put the puck into the vacated net to make it 5-4. While Theodore appeared to be aiming to shoot the puck the length of the ice for an empty-net goal, he said afterward he was simply trying to send it down the ice.
"I was just trying to get it out of the zone and kill some time," Theodore said. "I saw him. I just lifted my head and fanned."
Brooks Laich, however, bailed out his goalie moments later, scoring an empty-netter to cap the second-best home season in franchise history. With 29 wins, the Capitals fell just short of tying the 1985-86 team that won 30 times at Capital Centre.
Washington now heads out for a three-game road trip that begins tomorrow in Atlanta. Whether Aucoin joins the Capitals is unknown. That decision has not been made, according to General Manager George McPhee.
But Aucoin has certainly made the argument that he deserves to stay through the end of the regular season -- and possibly a lot longer.
"He's definitely played well for us," Boudreau said. "We'll probably have to make a decision here sooner or later. He's done really well."
Capitals Notes: Donald Brashear missed his 10th consecutive game because of a sprained left knee. Boudreau said the veteran enforcer is expected to return tomorrow in Atlanta. . . . Defenseman Brian Pothier was the healthy scratch.