If the Washington Capitals had played any NHL team other than the Tampa Bay Lightning this afternoon, they might have found themselves in trouble. Each time the Capitals took command, they let it slip away with sloppy play, forcing them to rely on a late burst to bury a team that has consistently found new ways to lose.
Washington held off the woeful Lightning, 6-3, at Ice Palace, bolstered by a terrific game from Ulf Dahlen's line. The Capitals' season-high winning streak reached five games overall and three in a row on the road. They are two games over .500 for the first time since the culmination of the 1996-97 season--a span of 124 games--and they gained sole possession of the sixth playoff spot. They have lost once since just before Christmas (7-1-2), allowing only 17 goals; the Lightning has one win in 15 games and had ample opportunity to end that streak today.
"They kept coming," forward Steve Konowalchuk said. "I didn't relax, I'll put it that way. There wasn't a lot of time to relax out there. We kept our foot on the gas pedal and they kept coming. . . . They could have come back with a break and tied the game."
Both teams played ugly hockey much of the game in a virtually empty arena. The Capitals (19-17-7), who tied their season high for goals, managed to salvage something out of the first period, taking the lead with 15 seconds remaining. Richard Zednik freed the puck deep in Washington's zone, and Dahlen (two goals and one assist) and Jan Bulis (three assists) headed up ice on a two-on-two break. When Dahlen sent the puck into the crease, Zednik crashed the net in full sprint. He shook off Darcy Tucker's check and chipped in the puck for his 10th goal and third in two games since snapping a 15-game funk.
Tampa answered on the power play. Konowalchuk had just left the penalty box when he plowed into Tucker, who was tangling with goalie Olaf Kolzig. Konowalchuk returned to the penalty box and Tucker returned to the crease, where he slipped in a rebound on a backhand four minutes into the second period. It was a sign of things to come.
"Defensively, we can play better than that," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "But it's also nice to be able to get six goals on the road."
The teams did little except trade power plays, and Washington finally dented the NHL's worst home penalty-killing unit on its fourth try.
Bulis deftly split the defense to gain the offensive zone and fed Sergei Gonchar at the point. Gonchar quickly found Dahlen, who spun and unleashed a perfect wrist shot to the top corner, beating Rich Parent's glove about seven minutes into the period. Dahlen has 12 points in 14 games, and his four power-play goals are tied for the team high.
"Bulis, Dahlen and Zednik have been outstanding," Wilson said. "The last two games, [Dahlen] has skated like I haven't seen for a while."
But other lines weren't producing as much. Washington spent 6 minutes 31 seconds on the power play in the second period and blew much of it.
Wilson gave his third line a rare power-play shift, and it responded by making it 3-1 with about five minutes left in the period. Jeff Halpern and Joe Sacco provided the screen, and when Parent failed to squeeze Gonchar's shot, Halpern tapped it in.
Then Capitals defenseman Joe Reekie quickly gave the puck away at Washington's blueline, which led to Chris McAlpine's goal with 94 seconds left in the second period, cutting the lead to 3-2.
"There were some moments when we lost focus," Gonchar said. "That's one of the things we have to work on--playing a full 60 minutes."
Gonchar scored his ninth goal in 16 games (zero in his first 20), cutting to the slot and shooting through James Black's expert screen about three minutes into the third period. Again, Washington let the Lightning crawl back, as it trimmed the deficit to 4-3 on Steve Martins's goal four minutes later.
Dahlen saved his best for last, stopping a potential goal by sweeping the puck from the crease and leading a charge up ice. Bulis threaded a pass back to Dahlen and he broke in alone on Parent, drew him out with a pretty deke and patiently tucked the puck behind him with about seven minutes to play.
Chris Simon (second on the team with 11 goals, seven in 13 games) scored in the final minute. Finally, Konowalchuk could relax. Two more crucial points were secured.