Washington Capitals winger James Black has felt unwanted and expendable, bouncing from Hartford to Minnesota to Dallas to Buffalo to Chicago, with a slew of minor league detours along the way. He knew when the Capitals acquired him from the Blackhawks last October that he was close to another demotion; he knows the bus leagues remain just a phone call away.
When Black began this season in a slump, failing to score and plummeting to the league's worst plus-minus rating, he battled self-confidence. On nights when he was a healthy scratch it was even worse. Since October he has emerged as one of the team's unsung heroes, and last night he gave the Capitals a third-period lead at MCI Center against Chicago, and nearly scored several more. However, he and his teammates had to settle for a 2-2 tie before 16,017 fans, the biggest crowd since opening night, and are winless in four games (0-3-1).
Black, 29, who has seven goals in his last 19 games after none in his first 13, unleashed a booming slap shot from the right boards about nine minutes into the third period, aiming high. He thrust both arms in the air and turned to the fans, basking in the moment. He had burned his former employers. He had rediscovered his scoring touch.
"When I came in here last year I had confidence and played well," said Black, who spent 1994 through 1996 in the minors. "And I knew the coaching staff still had confidence in me. I just had to look at myself in the mirror and do what I did last year."
Black is on pace to come close to matching last season's 16 goals, the highest total of his NHL career. He and his speedy linemates, rookie Jeff Halpern (on a career-best four-game point streak) and Joe Sacco, are asked to think defense first and check well yet continue to help offensively. They were the Capitals' most productive line last night.
"That's a line that completely buys in," Coach Ron Wilson said. "If you want to know what our system is, watch that line, they play it exactly."
But four minutes after Black's goal the Capitals could not convert a three-on-two, and gritty Blackhawks captain Doug Gilmour was left all alone a few feet from the net. He easily tapped in Alexei Zhamnov's pass, tying the game at 1. Black set up Sacco for a one-timer right in front in the closing minutes, but Jocelyn Thibault made the save. He was robbed by a head-over-heels effort in overtime. He was everywhere.
Both teams played down the significance of their first meeting since a brawl-filled preseason game, though emotions ran high. The NHL suspended Capitals General Manager George McPhee one month for instigating a postgame fight, though he and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz since have made peace. That tide of goodwill has not spread to the ice. Checks were finished with vigor, there were several scrums along the boards and ample trash talking.
The Capitals made a concerted effort to drive to the net and created plenty of havoc around Thibault. But they could not translate that confusion into goals. Peter Bondra, in his first game back after missing three weeks with minor knee surgery, had four shots in the first period; the Blackhawks had six. They outshot Chicago 34-23 in the game.
Washington (12-16-6, 7-4-5 at home) repeatedly pumped high shots at the net, listening to Wilson's mantra, and whacked away at the rebounds, but the best chances ended up wide. They moved the puck well on the power play, but blew two early chances--they went 0 for 4 on the night and are 5 for 56 at MCI Center this season, the worst home power play in the NHL. They spent too much time looking for the perfect shot and not enough time shooting it.
The Blackhawks--widely criticized for their propensity toward goonish hockey (they lead the NHL in penalty minutes)--were hitting feverishly and the Capitals reciprocated. They played catch-up on the scoreboard, too. The Blackhawks took the lead with the teams playing four-on-four. Washington was caught changing defensive pairs, Sergei Gonchar was stuck up ice and Michael Nylander finished the two-on-one by dancing around Olaf Kolzig about four minutes into the second period.
"Two of our guys never even bothered coming back hard," Wilson said.
The Capitals responded late in the second period. An errant pass by Chicago winger Tony Amonte began their rush. A host of Capitals crashed the crease, and as players jostled for position the puck emerged on Chris Simon's stick. He buried it with 2 minutes 17 seconds left in the period, scoring in his fourth straight game, netting his eighth goal. He tied the game, and that's how it would end.
"We're definitely disappointed," Halpern said. "When you're up by a goal in the third period you have to bear down more. It's a point, but it's not what we were aiming for."
Capitals Notes: Captain Adam Oates was honored before the game for reaching the 1,000-game milestone last week. The NHL presented him with a crystal vase and the Capitals gave him a silver stick and commissioned a painting of him. . . . Minor leaguer Trevor Halverson, who suffered a concussion in the preseason game with Chicago, likely has played his last game, McPhee said.
CAPTION: Adam Oates flips puck in front of Blackhawks goalie Jocelyn Thibault as Chicago's Doug Zmolek goes down. Capitals' Steve Konowalchuk looks on.