Maybe it is the image of primary owner Ted Leonsis that occasionally flickers on the scoreboard after a big goal. Perhaps it is the new organ. Could be the flashier game presentation, more vocal crowd and livelier atmosphere at MCI Center.
Whatever the reason, the Washington Capitals are a different team when playing at home--one that regularly battles back to win tight games, scoring goals in the clutch. Last night they gave away two leads then capitalized on a blown call in the third period to knock off the New York Islanders, 4-2, getting three assists from center Adam Oates.
The Capitals (10-11-5, 7-3-4 at home) have earned points in 10 straight home games (6-1-3, including an overtime loss); every game at MCI Center this season save for a blowout loss to Anaheim has been decided by two goals or fewer.
The Capitals have outscored opponents 15-3 in the third period at home, excluding the Anaheim game. Last season the Capitals were just 16-23-2 at MCI Center.
"That was our big problem last year," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "We stunk at home and we were never able to battle back. This is something that started [in our home opener] and we've battled back at home since then. That went a long way to building character in the team . . . Every third period we go into we feel we can hold on to a lead or come back on a team."
Winning requires character and good luck. Last night, rookie Jeff Halpern won a draw in Washington's end and raced up the ice, where he collected a high flip pass from defenseman Ken Klee. Problem was the puck not only crossed three lines, it also appeared to be a hand pass. But Halpern was hauled down at the blue line when he caught the puck and James Black raced to the goal untouched and beat rookie Roberto Luongo 2 minutes 15 seconds into the third period. The officials conferred, but the goal stood. The Capitals quickly scrambled to resume play at center ice, realizing they got away with one. Richard Zednik added the empty net goal. More home magic.
"We know we've played very well in the third period," Black said. "Olie made some big stops and we killed off a crucial penalty at the end. Everybody is believing in each other. It's a real good situation."
The celebration for Black's goal was rivaled only by what took place in the first period. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, perhaps the key player on the team, finally scored his first goal of the season. The player the organization believed would join the league's elite--the player who slipped from the team's first to fifth defenseman with his inconsistent play--ended 66 days, 20 games and 52 shots worth of frustration about 11 minutes into the game.
Andrei Nikolishin triggered the play by storming into Luongo and by the time the goalie recovered, Oates (15 points in his last 13 games) fed Gonchar for a one-timer from the slot. By the time Gonchar reached the bench, his smile evolved into a full-blown laugh.
Last season Gonchar missed a month because of injuries and did not score until Dec. 12 in his 14th game, the team's 27th. He ended with 21 goals in his final 40 games. This season he scored in the Capitals' 26th game, his 21st. The hope is he finishes just as strong.
The Capitals could have built the lead on the power play, but again failed to. They blew three opportunities in the first 25 minutes of the game (they have the NHL's worst home power play) and went 1-5 on the night. But they continued their penalty killing supremacy--killing three power plays last night, 23 in a row, 40 straight at home and 82 of 84 over the last 21 games.
They could not prevent Mariusz Czerkawski from scoring on a wrist shot about six minutes into the second period. Washington regained the lead with a terrific team effort on the power play--all five players made contributions, the puck never left the Islanders' zone and Oates found Konowalchuk in front with five minutes left in the second period. Twenty seconds later Jamie Heward's weak wrist shot was heading well wide when it struck defenseman Brendan Witt's stick and deflected into the net.
"At that point, I was like here we go again--what do I have to do to get a win?" Kolzig said.