Two months ago, a slap shot by Brendan Witt probably would have struck the post. Two months ago, Ken Klee's routine release from the high slot likely would have deflected wide. Two months ago, it seemed as if the Washington Capitals could not catch a break, could not score a goal.
Now, they're scoring even when they aren't really trying and getting contributions from the most unlikely of sources. Last night was a perfect example in the Capitals' 2-1 victory over the upstart Calgary Flames before 12,927 at MCI Center. Witt and Klee, two physical defensemen whose contributions often go overlooked, both scored--Witt his first goal of the season and Klee his third, and first in more than two months.
The NHL's hottest team is now undefeated in nine games (8-0-1), their longest streak since the 1986-87 season. The Capitals (22-17-8) are also unbeaten in eight straight at home (6-0-2).
Even when they are off their game, as they were for much of last night, they are finding new ways to win. Some nights it's a stifling defense. Other nights it's an offensive barrage. On occasion they get a little lucky.
"We just continue to play real character hockey," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "It's a good sign, because you're not going to win every game 8-2, and the teams that win one-goal games are the ones that have the most success in the playoffs."
The Capitals, 10-8 in one-goal games this season compared with 13-20 last season, survived several close calls in the first five minutes of the game. The Flames, who entered the game on a 6-1 tear, attacked Kolzig, who made 27 saves. Marc Savard nearly put a wraparound into a semi-empty net. Kolzig swept aside big slap shots from Jerome Iginla and Phil Housley.
"Olie was probably the difference tonight," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Especially in the first period, especially in the first five minutes."
Washington worked back in the game with its tenacious penalty killers as the catalysts. Two early penalty kills brought the crowd alive. The Capitals sustained some offense while a man down and took the lead shortly thereafter on a set play gone awry.
The puck was supposed to go to Calle Johansson for a one-timer off the faceoff, but it hopped over Johansson's stick, so he swung it to Witt. Witt fired from the point with 2 minutes 30 seconds remaining in the first period and it deflected unexpectedly, fooling goaltender Fred Brathwaite completely. Witt scored his first goal since March 13, a stretch of 55 games, and ended a prolonged streak of futility for five-sixths of the team's defense. Witt, Klee, Johansson, Joe Reekie and Dmitri Mironov had combined for one goal in their last 134-man games before last night (Reekie is the only Capital without a goal).
"I was sort of laughing because it went off [Calgary's] Bobby Dollas," Witt said. "And I know that feeling--as a defenseman you're there trying to control traffic and it goes off you and your goalie really doesn't have a chance."
But Washington's overall play didn't improve much with the lead and the Flames tied the game about six minutes into the second period, using a textbook triangle passing sequence between Martin St. Louis, ex-Capital Benoit Gratton and Hnat Domenichelli, who finished it off with a pretty cut to the crease. The Capitals continued to shine on the penalty kill--they were 5 for 5 last night, and are fifth in the NHL overall--but neither team generated many quality scoring chances.
Klee won the game on a quirky play. He snapped a 30-game funk, scoring his first goal since Nov. 13 late in the second period, on a goal that was just as unusual as Witt's score. Ulf Dahlen won a draw in Calgary's zone and Zednik dumped the puck to Klee. Klee's slap shot deflected off Rene Corbet's skates and Brathwaite was helpless. He flung his glove at the puck, but it was already behind him.
"To me winning is just as contagious as losing," Klee said. "When things aren't going well everything goes worse and when things are going well, everything goes better. I'm a firm believer in that."