EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., OCT. 17 -- When in a tough spot, good teams reach for, and usually find, a little extra energy, a little extra luck. Right now, the Washington Capitals are just reaching and looking awkward.
The New Jersey Devils worked a bit harder, were a lot luckier and departed Brendan Byrne Arena tonight with a 3-2 victory over the Capitals in front of 9,171.
All three Devils goals were somewhat dubious. Peter Stastny's might have been scored with a high stick. Those of Paul Ysebaert and Kirk Muller went off their skates and didn't look entirely accidental. However infuriating the circumstances were for the Capitals, those are just excuses and Coach Terry Murray was having none of them.
"It wasn't the type of performance I'd like to see in a big division game," said Murray, whose team is now 0-3 on the road, 0-4 in the Patrick Division and 2-5 overall.
This game was the first of four in a row against division foes. The New York Islanders will visit Capital Centre Friday and the Devils will arrive the following night.
Peter Bondra scored his first NHL goal to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead in the first period. The Devils led by 2-1 after Stastny and Ysebaert scored. Mike Ridley tied it just before the end of the second period, but Muller scored the game-winner with under six minutes left.
Don Beaupre played his second straight game in goal for the Capitals, who lost by 3-1 Monday night in Montreal.
"Beaupre played great," said Murray, whose team was outshot, 32-20. "We just didn't have enough quality chances."
Murray said he couldn't tell from the bench whether the goals should have counted.
"I would hope that if they are not legitimate that the referee would make that call," Murray said of Andy van Hellemond. "No, I have no complaints on the goals. We've got to play better hockey to be successful."
Although they met in an exhibition game, this was the first meeting with meaning between these teams since the Capitals eliminated the Devils (4-2) in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
Since then, the Devils have made a concerted effort to be more physical. They added Claude Lemieux, and even the Soviet defensemen now throw punches.
"We had to address that problem of last year," Devils Coach John Cunniff said.
"Maybe tonight we just moved the puck a little slower than we did in the playoffs," Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson said.
So eager to score and please his new employers, Bondra has probably been moving too quickly. But tonight, after missing on numerous scoring chances in his first five games, he picked up an errant pass by Brendan Shanahan and beat goalie Chris Terreri for a 1-0 lead with just 3:52 gone.
"It would have been nice to score and win the game," Bondra said through teammate and translator Michel Pivonka.
The Capitals had a five-on-three advantage for 1:40 late in the first period, but got nothing and the Devils started to assert themselves in the second.
Beaupre stopped John MacLean's slap shot, but Stastny batted in the rebound. The Capitals thought it was a high stick, but van Hellemond allowed it.
About four minutes later, Alexei Kasatonov sent the puck toward the goalmouth. Defenseman Mike Lalor had Ysebaert tied up, but the puck went off -- or was redirected, depending on the point of view -- past Beaupre for a 2-1 lead.
Ridley, who had four points in the first two games but none since, intercepted a weak pass by Viacheslav Fetisov and, a moment later, slapped home a shot for a 2-2 tie after two periods.
But the Capitals didn't build on that goal. The Devils outshot them, 15-4, in the third period. Stastny sent the puck toward the bumper-to-bumper traffic obstructing Beaupre's view. Again, Muller was tied up, but the puck caromed off his skate and into the net.
"It seemed like when we used to play Montreal -- tight checking with a defensive style to the game," Stastny said, referring to his days with Quebec.
"Because we had three days off, we were a little rusty in the first period, but we came on strong in the second. They played well. Maybe we outworked them, but if you're going to win that game, it isn't looking so pretty. The goals will go in off something."