Ted Leonsis, the Washington Capitals' new owner, was hoping he would be $1,000 poorer by 10 p.m. tonight. He couldn't wait to give the reward to the player who scored the first game-winning goal of his regime. Instead, Leonsis stuffed the wad of $100 bills into his pocket after the Capitals' 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers at National Car Rental Center, disheartened but not broken.
He knows there were plenty of positives to draw from the season-opening game. He realizes key youngsters Jan Bulis and Yogi Svejkovsky played well, boosting their confidence with big goals. He is aware that the team showed a renewed offensive spark. He knows Jeff Halpern and Glen Metropolit, playing in their first NHL games, hardly looked overwhelmed. It's just that the ultra-successful America Online executive, who visited his troops before the game, has yet to figure out how to handle defeat.
"It was great to see him come in the [dressing room] before the game," Svejkovsky said. "Seeing him here and seeing how much he cares really pumped everybody up. We really wanted to win it for him. But we still played a pretty good game. We shouldn't get down."
Leonsis's team gave a good effort. They created lots of chances (and also gave up too many) and seemed quicker than a season ago. The Panthers didn't outplay them, they were just more opportunistic. Florida scored first, 3 minutes 28 seconds into the game, and never trailed. Winger Pavel Bure, expected to lead them to the playoffs, scored the first time he touched the puck in his first game since last March, when his right knee was reconstructed for the second time.
The Capitals notched their first goal of the season about two minutes later on pure strength and hustle. Steve Konowalchuk, who missed much of last season with various injuries, battled Lance Pitlick relentlessly for the puck, then pushed him aside and fed the puck through the slot. Bulis, poised for a breakout season, cut through the slot and one-timed the puck in, completing a terrific shift, the line's first of the season.
Goalie Olaf Kolzig had little chance when Ray Whitney found the top of a wide open net with 1:17 left in the period with three Capitals out of the play. Whitney struck again about three minutes into the second period, getting behind Dmitri Mironov and finishing a perfect two-on-one break.
The Capitals cut the lead to 3-2 when Svejkovsky darted to the net and redirected Calle Johansson's blistering slap shot with nine seconds remaining on a power play. If not for defenseman Sergei Gonchar's nifty move at the blue line--keeping the puck in the zone--the play would not have developed.
But before Washington could pull any closer, Viktor Kozlov screeched to a halt and faked a pass a few feet from the net, freezing Kolzig and forcing Brendan Witt to drop to the ice, cutting off a passing lane with Bure sneaking in at the far post. Kozlov's shot rolled between Kolzig's legs for a 4-2 lead late in the second period.
Coach Ron Wilson tried to jumpstart his top line, dropping Metropolit and inserting Joe Sacco, who played a strong, speedy game. Peter Bondra sent a great chance wide. A puck got through everyone with about four minutes left, but was snatched from the line. A minute later Bulis charged to the crease and pushed a tricky backhander beyond Sean Burke, pulling the Capitals to 4-3. Adam Oates nearly tied it in the final seconds.
"As a coach, I'm pleased with our effort," Wilson said. "We created a ton of pressure and when we were down two goals we didn't get passive, we still managed to create our best chances."
Leonsis was a nervous wreck, watching all the drama from a luxury suite. The longtime Capitals fan, who spent the first period chatting on the team's new Web site, is taking things a little more personally now, living and dying with each goal scored and each one allowed.
"I'll be honest with you, I wish I could skate," Leonsis said. "I wish I could go out there and hit somebody. I know I have to calm it down. It's a long season."
Capitals Notes: Forwards Ulf Dahlen, Jeff Toms and Mike Eagles were scratched, as was defenseman Ken Sutton. . . . Halpern was an impressive 8-2 on faceoffs. . . . The Capitals have nearly completed talks with prospect Steve Shirreffs, and should have the minor league defenseman signed in a day or two.