The pass had to be perfect. Anything less and the two-on-one break would be wasted; anything less and the Washington Capitals would blow another glorious scoring chance. As Steve Konowalchuk glided along the right wing about seven minutes into the third period, the game moved in slow motion. Each second of hesitation put more doubt in the mind of Tampa Bay defenseman Petr Svoboda.
Konowalchuk cradled the puck, showing pass, then pulled it back as center Jan Bulis chugged down the left side and Svoboda sprawled to block a feed that didn't come. Bulis was just a few feet from the net now, but Svoboda was everywhere, all arms and legs filling the slot. Finally, Konowalchuk released the puck--a perfect feed inches from Svoboda and right on Bulis's stick--and Bulis finished into an empty side of the net, the decisive goal in Washington's morale-boosting 2-1 defeat of the Lightning before 10,021 last night at MCI Center.
"That looked like a Mario Lemieux feed right there," Bulis said of his seventh goal. "It couldn't have been any better--it was the perfect time, the perfect height. That was the best pass I've seen from him."
Konowalchuk was going on pure instinct. His only thought was the chance he passed up earlier in the game. He remembered the pregame meeting, when the coaching staff preached to shoot more. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Then Konowalchuk saw Svoboda go down. "I figured what the heck, I'll try to pass it," Konowalchuk said. "Bulis is always all over me for not feeding him enough with the empty net, so hopefully this will shut him up for a couple of games."
Richard Zednik, the third member of Washington's dominant second line, also made a key contribution to the game-winner, racing to the boards and freeing the puck after the Capitals (5-7-2) won a draw in Tampa Bay's end. The entire play was a perfect execution of Coach Ron Wilson's system; the kind of thing the Capitals went two miserable weeks without capitalizing on. It symbolized the team's turnaround, with three wins in four games after a six-game winless streak.
"We were jumping into the positions you're supposed to go," Wilson said. "The guys believed. Maybe a couple of weeks ago Kono wouldn't be there because he wasn't sure Zed would get the puck out. Now he believes he'll get the puck out. It was a great goal."
The Capitals' resurgence also has been keyed by stellar penalty killing, never more evident than last night. They killed off seven power plays, including three in the crucial third period, running their streak to 32 straight ("They were the difference," Wilson said). Again the Capitals were on the short end of several calls. Dmitri Mironov went off for a questionable four-minute high-sticking penalty with three seconds left in the second period. They killed it with relative ease, negating the second half of the penalty by drawing a Tampa Bay penalty. They killed off a rare four-on-three and goalie Olaf Kolzig (28 saves) came up huge the one time he had to, robbing Stephane Richer. "He's one of the best in the league and he proved it," Richer said.
If not for some bad luck early in the game, such third-period heroics would have been unnecessary. The Capitals had an outstanding start. At least six players came inches from finding the net in the first period. The puck whizzed all over Tampa Bay's zone. Zednik drove to the net. James Black nailed a post. Sergei Gonchar, one of eight Capitals still without a goal, slipped in back door but goalie Dan Cloutier swung over to make a great save.
The assault was relentless. Each shift was better than the last. A goal would surely come. Peter Bondra provided that, taking a crisp pass from rookie Glen Metropolit (five points in his last four games) and poking it in about six minutes into the game. Bondra leads the team with 10 goals in 14 games and has an unthinkable 30 goals in 30 contests against Tampa Bay. The Lightning worked back into the game in the second period and tied it on Robert Petrovicky's goal.
It looked like the game might slip away. One sequence changed that. Zednik to Konowalchuk to Bulis. Just like Wilson drew it up.