It took two periods for the Washington Capitals to shake off the effects of Thursday's loss to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers. For 40 minutes last night they combined with the Thrashers to play sluggish and unentertaining hockey, then put the game away in the third period. The Capitals re-established themselves with a 3-0 victory at MCI Center in the second of three consecutive games with the Thrashers, cementing the win on Mike Eagles's first goal of the season with about eight minutes to play.
"We want to have a really good series against these guys," Eagles said. "We lost an important game in Atlanta and put a lot of pressure on ourselves coming back home. We knew it was going to be a tough game right from the start."
Washington raised its record to 15-17-7 overall and 10-4-6 at home, where it has earned points in 15 of the past 16 games and has allowed two goals or less in nine consecutive contests. The Capitals have yielded just 44 goals at home this season, fewest in the conference. Much credit is due to goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who earned his 13th career shutout and second this season (both against Atlanta). He has allowed just 18 goals in his past 11 starts at home, stopping 266 of 284 shots for a .937 save percentage.
Atlanta fully expected the Capitals to come out with a strong first period. Washington knew it needed to skate harder, finish its checks and play with passion, all things it neglected during Thursday night's disappointing loss in Atlanta. Saturday, the Capitals played better early, but hardly dominated until late.
As it turns out, the game-winning goal came about four minutes in. Center Adam Oates (one goal and one assist; 26 points in past 26 games) and Ulf Dahlen dished the puck back and forth behind the net before Dahlen wheeled out in front and flicked a beautiful backhanded shot over goalie Scott Fankhouser's shoulder. The puck went into the far corner of the net for Dahlen's fifth goal of the season, giving him eight points in the past nine games.
Washington worked to create several scoring chances, but as has been the case so often this season, most did not end up in the net. Richard Zednik (no goals in 12 games) deflected Jan Bulis's shot, but it just missed the net. Defenseman Calle Johansson sent a shot off the outside of the post. Dahlen fed winger Chris Simon for a one-timer in the low slot; Fankhouser looked behind him, unsure if the blast was wedged between his legs. It was.
Much of the game was played between the bluelines, with little creativity or spunk. If anything, Atlanta had more scoring chances in the second period, but that primarily was because the Thrashers spent considerable time on the man advantage. Nelson Emerson got free in front of the net and Kolzig shut him down. Darryl Shannon broke to goal as well, only to skate back in frustration.
The Thrashers enjoyed four power plays in the second period alone. They could not dent Washington's penalty killing, which went 8 for 8 and is 118 for 129 over the past 34 games.
Capitals rookie Jeff Halpern got involved in the first fight of his NHL career, with Dean Sylvester. Rugged defenseman Joe Reekie stepped in to intervene and headed to the penalty box. Chris Simon and Chris Tamer fought at the end of the period, though no firm punches were landed, and more scuffles followed.
All indications pointed to a tight third period. Instead, Washington broke the game open on the opening shift. Oates fed Johansson on a two-on-one and Emerson hauled Johansson down. The two went sliding toward the net and upended Atlanta defenseman Maxim Galanov as Oates retrieved the loose puck in the slot. The three players bowled over Fankhouser, and he was trapped in the back of the net as Oates slid the puck into the side of the net 20 seconds into the period.
"We talked about [playing a strong third period] in the room," Kolzig said. "When it's 1-0 anything can happen. . . . We responded well to the way we played the other night and now we have to take it to another level when we play them again Wednesday."
Capitals Notes: Winger Peter Bondra (strained left knee) remained off the ice and missed his second straight game. He has played just three full games since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 5. Coach Ron Wilson said it is still undetermined when Bondra will attempt to skate next. . . . The Capitals announced they will honor former captain Dale Hunter at their game March 11. The team did not disclose what it will do to honor him, but it is likely the team will retire his No. 32. Hunter retired this summer to become the team's player development instructor.