Every game the Washington Capitals play is a struggle. They scrap and claw, often outworking a more talented opposition, but they enter the final minutes sweating out the outcome, hungry for goals. Every point is integral to their postseason hopes. Every game feels like the playoffs.
Last night was no different. The Capitals did so much right--creating havoc in the offensive zone, minimizing mistakes in the defensive zone--against the St. Louis Blues, the team with the third-most victories in the NHL. The Capitals ended up with a 1-1 tie before 13,059 at MCI Center.
The Capitals (13-16-7) are 8-4-6 at home--13 of their 18 games at MCI Center have been decided by one goal or less, and all but one have been decided by two goals or fewer. They have earned points in 13 of their last 14 games at home, going 7-2-5 in that span. They conclude a four-game homestand Tuesday against struggling Montreal, then face expansion Atlanta for three straight games--a great chance to make up ground in the standings and rediscover a scoring touch.
"The bottom line is, we're still in this," Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "We could have gone the other way and basically been out of the race, but we've got a good bunch of guys in the room. We just could maybe grind it out a little harder and get those wins instead of ties."
Washington outplayed the Blues--except on two early power plays--but had nothing to show for it. St. Louis goalie Roman Turek, who plays behind one of the best defenses in the league, made a few dazzling saves; other times the Capitals made his work easy by pumping shots at his chest.
Defenseman Dmitri Mironov challenged with a big slap shot early and Chris Simon chipped the rebound toward the goal. Turek snared the shot out of the air. Sergei Gonchar crept in from the blueline and sent his shot wide.
James Black was denied on a deceptive slap shot. Richard Zednik fed Jan Bulis at the top of the crease from the left boards. Turek kicked the shot aside. Bulis was in front of the net after the ensuing faceoff. Turek crouched and the puck hit him in the midsection.
Pierre Turgeon, again playing like an elite forward, led the Blues' offense. Kolzig (32 saves) stopped him twice in the first period.
The next time Kolzig saw Turgeon bearing down on him, there was no help in sight. Three Capitals were caught trying to advance the puck at the St. Louis blueline and Chris Pronger, a favorite to win the Norris Trophy this season as the league's best defenseman, sprung Turgeon on a breakaway, slicing center ice with a perfect pass.
Kolzig made a kick save, but Turgeon popped the rebound over him 6 minutes 36 seconds into the second period. Turgeon's points streak reached 14 games--the second longest in the NHL this season.
The Capitals kept doing what they had from the onset, hoping their hard work around the net would yield results. It did. They tied the game 51 seconds later.
Jeff Toms shoveled the puck to the net with a player draped all over him. Ulf Dahlen, who excels down low, shuffled the puck to his backhand and stuffed it behind Turek. Toms had his first point of the season (12 games); Dahlen had his first goal since Nov. 26 (14 games). That was the only time the Blues did not have either Pronger or reigning Norris Trophy winner Al MacInnis on the ice.
Washington produced 31 shots against a team that has yielded about 100 fewer shots than any other team.
"We worked as hard as we have all season down low," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "It was a great effort."
Zednik, Bulis and Steve Konowalchuk continued to keep Turek busy. Kolzig thwarted Terry Yake in the crease early in the third period; Peter Bondra came close at the other end. No one could break through.
Gonchar, Jeff Halpern and Andrei Nikolishin came close in overtime. Wilson said a St. Louis player covered the puck in the crease on that scramble, which would prompt an automatic penalty shot, but nothing was called. ("That's why I'd like to see two referees every game," Wilson said.)
The score remained tied, as it always seems to be.
"If we can stay consistent and play this way we are going to win a lot of hockey games," Dahlen said. "This is the way we've got to play. We have forwards who are good along the boards and good cycling in the other team's end, and if we can play solid in our own end, the rest is going to take care of itself."
Capitals Notes: Winger Yogi Svejkovsky, who has struggled this season, was a healthy scratch. He has just one goal, has not scored in 20 games and has a minus-7 rating.
Svejkovsky, 23, was one of the players management was hoping would break through this season. He was brilliant in the minors in 1996-97 and 1998-99 and has shown flashes of his offensive gifts at the NHL level. Svejkovsky entered the season with 17 goals in 61 NHL games, strong totals for a youngster. . . .
Center Mike Eagles also was scratched. . . . Wilson and assistants Tim Army and Tim Hunter were behind the bench for their 200th game with the Capitals. . . .
The Capitals finished the decade 360-335-86, 12th-best in the NHL. Center Adam Oates finished second to Wayne Gretzky with 674 assists in the 1990s; he finished third in points (902), behind Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr.