FleetCenter seemed like the least likely locale for a Washington Capitals victory tonight. The building's tenants, the Boston Bruins, were the hottest team in the NHL, earning points in 11 of their last 12 games and winning six straight at home. The Capitals, the NHL's worst road team, were playing their second game in as many nights, coming off a physical tie with division rival Carolina.
But not only did the Capitals overpower the Bruins, they did it in an improbable fashion, getting a shutout from a rarely used backup (Craig Billington) and two goals from a player who hadn't found the net in 25 games (Andrei Nikolishin). They grabbed an early lead and cruised to a 3-0 victory, the team's first shutout since last April.
Billington--in just his second start of the season--stopped all 28 shots he faced, earning his first shutout since November 1997. The defense played well in front of him, and unlike recent games, Washington (7-8-4, 19 points) played well with the lead instead of giving it away. The Capitals are 5-2-2 since coming off a poor road trip and have earned points in eight of those nine games.
They are hoping the recent road success is a sign of things to come--tonight's game began a stretch in which they play four of five games away from home and 11 of 15.
"This was a real test for us," said Billington, a former Bruin. "That's a very good Boston Bruins team, and this was a great challenge for us to stay within our system and get some belief in it."
The Capitals kept the Bruins' shots to the perimeter, cleared out the front of the net, prevented second-chance shots and allowed Billington--acquired for $1 from Colorado over the summer--to see shots cleanly and earn his 100th NHL win. The penalty-killing was superb, as it has been for the past month. The Capitals killed three power plays in the first period, including a key chance just moments after they took a two-goal lead, and now have killed 53 straight penalties over 12 games--a club record.
They were stifling on two Boston power plays in the third period, capping what Coach Ron Wilson called their best penalty-
killing performance of the season.
"We're confident right now we can play with anybody," forward Steve Konowalchuk said. "We're a very confident team right now."
The offense stemmed from the strong defensive effort. Center Adam Oates (eight points in the past eight games) made a nice play after his pass was knocked down at the blue line, and he sent it down low. Rookie Glen Metropolit (seven points in the last nine games) fed Peter Bondra at the left faceoff circle and Bondra swept a low shot to the far side, just inside the post. The Capitals led 12 minutes in and Bondra had his eleventh goal, snapping a stretch of one goal in seven games.
Four minutes later a much more profound slump was lifted, short-handed no less. Defenseman Ken Klee made an alert play at Washington's blue line and Nikolishin, who finished last season in a seven-game drought before starting this season 0-for-18, headed up ice. Winger Joe Sacco went hard to the net, providing a screen, and Nikolishin stopped hard at the high slot, spun and fired a wrist shot former Capital goalie Byron Dafoe never saw. The lead was 2-0.
"It's hard to play a perfect hockey game, but we came pretty darn close," Wilson said.
But the period wasn't all positive. Center Jan Bulis, 21, off to a terrific start, played just one shift and then succumbed to sore ribs, though he is expected to play Wednesday. The other centers split time skating an extra shift to compensate for the loss of Bulis, who remained on the bench. Three defensemen are already out of the lineup and two recently recalled youngsters--Alexei Tezikov and Nolan Baumgartner--continued to impress.
The second period, often the Capitals' worst, went just as smoothly and Billington stepped up when he had to. He bobbled a tough shot from Sergei Samsonov but covered up when Joe Thornton, leading Boston in scoring though just 20, whacked at the rebound. Jonathon Girard ripped a shot from the point, Billington made the pad save and slid to his right to deny Dave Andreychuk, among league leaders with 13 goals. The Capitals were in total control. The boos began reigning on the home team halfway through the game. Nikolishin brought them to a crescendo with an empty-net goal, his first two-goal game as a Capital (179 games).
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Joe Reekie missed tonight's game with a bruised foot. He played the previous two games but missed six games prior to that after blocking a shot in San Jose. Tezikov, who missed three games with back spasms, returned to the lineup. Defensemen Jamie Huscroft (ribs) and Sergei Gonchar (muscle strain) are on injured reserve. Forwards Mike Eagles and Yogi Svejkovsky were healthy scratches. . . . The Capitals are 6-5-3 against teams that made the playoffs last season and 4-0 against the Northeast Division.