Washington Capitals winger Richard Zednik searched his mind for weeks analyzing his season-long scoring slump and came to one conclusion--his sticks just weren't right. How else to explain his misery despite consistently being one of the team's top players, despite countless scoring chances, despite praise from his coaches.
It had to be the sticks. He waited in agony for new shafts to arrive from the manufacturer and dabbled with his teammate's sticks in practice. With just one goal in 16 games (41 shots) he was willing to try anything. Vindication came last night, as Zednik scored twice in a come-from-behind 2-2 tie with the Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars at MCI Center. He gave Washington an early lead, tied it deep in the third period and nearly won it in overtime.
But when Zednik, a key to the team's future, finally snapped his 12-game slump, no one knew. Zednik triggered the play with a booming slap shot that Stars goalie Manny Fernandez, who was outstanding with starter Ed Belfour out with an injury, couldn't handle. Steve Konowalchuk battled Chris Murray along the boards for the rebound and Zednik knocked Mike Keane to the ice and tracked down the loose puck before turning and firing. The puck struck skates and sticks and went in nearly eight minutes into the game. Konowalchuk celebrated and after a lengthy delay, the goal was awarded to him. But he never touched the puck. The ruling was reversed just before the second period began. Zednik's wait was over; his frustration lifted.
"I asked Kono if he got it and he said, 'No,' so I knew it was mine," Zednik said. "Nobody else was close to the puck. When I asked Kono if he touched it, I realized a couple defensemen hit the puck and it got in. I feel good. If I get the hat trick I would feel better, but I'm going to get on track, hopefully."
After countless beautiful scoring chances--slap shots off the post, one-timers that were somehow stopped, a penalty shot Mike Richter stuffed last week--Zednik had scored on a pure fluke. The coaches were worried that Zednik's frustration would detract from the 23-year-old's strong overall game. Now, they could breathe easier. They had hoped to get him going by letting him take that penalty shot; they would settle for last night's ugly goal.
The Capitals (6-8-3; 5-3-2 at home) were off to another strong start. The Stars, still loaded with heavy firepower but crippled by injuries, were reeling. Several shots nearly got through. Dmitri Mironov hit the crossbar. When Washington needed him, goaltender Olaf Kolzig (29 saves) was splendid again, never more so than on the penalty kill. The Capitals have killed off 45 straight and Kolzig made key saves on Sergei Zubov (twice) and Brett Hull (twice) to keep the streak in tact.
Coach Ron Wilson matched his top line against the Stars' potent unit of Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull, and it did a fine job, but Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock began shuffling Nieuwendyk around and the move paid off. Nieuwendyk tied the game with a wrist shot after emerging from the penalty box (Kolzig said he overplayed the shot) and gave Dallas a 2-1 lead with 1 minute 8 seconds left in the second period, finishing a cross-ice feed alone in front. The Capitals, outscored 24-12 in the second period this season, were playing well but were behind again.
"We played a great game," Wilson said. "We got a point and certainly we could have had two. . . . With the exception of three minutes I thought we pretty much had the game in control."
Wilson's team clearly dominated the final 25 minutes, as they have much of the season, outscoring opponents 9-1 in the third period over the last seven games. Zednik tied the game, but any number of Capitals could have.
Mironov used some nifty stick-handling to advance the puck into the Stars' zone, and Konowalchuk fed Jan Bulis. Bulis hit Zednik cutting alone to the low slot. Fernandez made the initial save but Zednik stayed with his rebound and backhanded it in with about nine minutes left in regulation for his first two-goal game since March 1998. The overtime was all Washington--it outshot Dallas 7-1, owned the puck and Zednik pumped two shots on goal before drawing a rare overtime penalty by going hard to the net. The Capitals sent everything to the goal. Nothing found the net.
Zednik will take it. He's still waiting for that new shipment of sticks; now he can live without them.
Capitals Notes: The Capitals placed defensemen Sergei Gonchar (muscle strain) and Jamie Huscroft (ribs) on injured reserve, though General Manager George McPhee said Gonchar could be ready to play by the weekend. Defenseman Alexei Tezikov (muscle spasms) also did not play. Defenseman Joe Reekie returned after missing six games with a bruised foot, defenseman Nolan Baumgartner made his first appearance of the season and forwards Mike Eagles and Yogi Svejkovsky were healthy scratches. . . . The team unveiled a new component of its Web site last night. Fans can access still shots from a camera that hangs on the scoreboard at MCI Center--the first NHL team to have that. . . . Last night's game was the 1,000th home game in franchise history (479-394-126).