They have speed, size, youth and a creative flair. They can sizzle with the puck or plow their way to the net. Washington Capitals forwards Steve Konowalchuk, Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik can beat opponents any number of ways. Of this, the Toronto Maple Leafs are certain.
That line has been the Capitals' best this season and was again last night, clicking for three early goals, setting the stage for a 5-3 victory over the Maple Leafs before 12,638 at MCI Center. But it was hardly a one-line show. When Toronto rallied for three goals in the second period, Chris Simon picked up the slack and scored twice late, icing the game in the final minutes.
The Capitals (4-6-3) won consecutive games for the first time this season; the Maple Leafs, who entered the game with the top-ranked offense in the conference and the best defense in the NHL, lost for the first time in seven games. They owned the second period; the rest belonged to Washington.
All four Washington lines and the entire defense joined in a first-period celebration of near flawless hockey. Bulis, who pressured Ottawa's defense into numerous turnovers Wednesday, wasted no time last night producing an equally stifling forecheck. He and his linemates pushed around a Maple Leafs defense that had held opponents scoreless in three of their past four games, and feasted on their mistakes.
Zednik and Konowalchuk (third on the team with 10 points) won the battles down low and caused traffic in front, and Bulis (tied for the team lead with 11 points) roofed a shot into the far corner 61 seconds into the game.
"We just have to keep doing what we did in the first period," Bulis said. "Zed and Kono are getting in there with the forecheck and I'm the third guy high. I think it's working out pretty well for us. As long as they keep forechecking like that, we'll get more and more chances and more and more goals."
The Capitals (3-2-1 at home) were finishing checks with abandon, pounding the Maple Leafs as they did the Senators. Simon fought Alexander Karpovtsev about six minutes in. Finesse players such as Adam Oates, who has his playmaking magic back, and Peter Bondra did dirty work in front of the net and tied up Toronto forwards around Washington's net. The checking line excelled at doing just that, while also creating consistent scoring chances.
And Bulis's line, which combined for seven points, continued to mix grit and grace. Another potent forecheck prompted Tomas Kaberle to cough up the puck. Zednik fired wide, Dmitri Mironov kept the rebound in the zone and Bulis scored while falling over, as Konowalchuk battled two Maple Leafs in front to set a screen. The 21-year-old Bulis had his sixth goal in just 12 games, about 10 minutes in.
The line finished the onslaught with 5 minutes 14 seconds left in the opening period. Konowalchuk stayed with his own rebound on a two-on-one break, stuffing the puck under goalie Glenn Healy after it bounced off the end-boards--a play triggered behind Washington's net by Calle Johansson's poise with the puck.
The Maple Leafs returned for the second period with a renewed will, exemplified by their captain, Mats Sundin, who stormed the net on the first shift of the period and put in his own rebound. The Capitals fell into a defensive shell as the period progressed, conceding the middle of the ice, scrambling frantically to clear the zone. Oates was denied on a short-handed breakaway and shortly after Sergei Berezin's one-timer made it 3-2.
Berezin scored again off Yanic Perreault's feed with 1:20 left in the second period, tying the game. The Capitals regrouped between periods.
"That was a wake-up call for us," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "We blew leads twice on the road and got blown out, and we basically said, 'Hey guys, we can't give games away, let's get back to playing the way we did the last four periods.' It was like we needed a measuring stick of how good our system really works by abandoning it in the second period."
The penalty killers negated nearly six minutes worth of power-play time in the third period, and the Capitals fed off that, returning to a physical attack. Simon fought off Corey Cross and threw a puck in off a skate in front about eight minutes in, and when Cross put a puck right on Joe Sacco's stick in the slot, Simon ended the wild evening with a nifty wrist shot with less than two minutes to play.
CAPTION: Richard Zednik (three assists) draws tripping penalty on Toronto's Cory Cross. Line of Zednik, Steve Konowalchuk and Jan Bulis combined for seven points.
CAPTION: Dejected Maple Leafs Steve Thomas, left, goalie Glenn Healy can't watch as Capitals celebrate Chris Simon's second goal of the third period.