Capitals 5, Rangers 3

The first goal was absolutely clinical, a perfectly placed blast to the corner of the net. Peter Bondra's second goal was all speed and strength, blowing by New York Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, fighting off a check and sending his rebound into the net. Bondra's third goal was pure power, a slap shot that whipped past Guy Hebert with such ferocity that the goalie barely turned his head.

Bondra's 17th career hat trick -- and third this season -- buried the Rangers last night, propelling the Washington Capitals to a 5-3 victory at sold-out MCI Center.

His second goal was the most profound, coming 89 seconds after the Rangers had rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie the game. The winger's third goal was scored just 26 seconds later, his eighth game-winner of the season, one off the league lead. Bondra collected the puck after center Adam Oates, whose three assists moved him into 22nd place on the NHL's career points list, won another clean faceoff.

Bondra netted his 40th goal of the season -- tied for second in the NHL -- and 19th power-play goal, tops in the league and one shy of the franchise high. A player who seemed destined to depart before the season began -- Bondra happily rescinded a trade request early this season before signing a long-term extension -- achieved another milestone in a Capitals' sweater.

"At the beginning I thought he'd get 40 [goals], but somewhere else," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I'm glad he's got the 40 goals with us. I'm glad everything was able to be resolved."

The victory gave Washington (36-20-10-2) a hefty 13-point cushion over Carolina in the Southeast Division. The Capitals are the NHL's top team since Dec. 1 and have lost once in regulation in their last 18 games (14-1-2-1). This was the first of five straight games at MCI Center, where Washington is 46-12-14-4 over the last two seasons.

Last night, the Capitals were far from their best, experiencing a hangover from Wednesday's dramatic win in Pittsburgh. Yet they extinguished the Rangers immediately after letting them back into the game.

Sylvain Cote scored Washington's first goal about seven minutes in on a wrist shot.

The Capitals opened the second period on the power play -- they lead the NHL in that category. Oates, who leads the league in assists and has 53 points in the last 38 games, whipped a pretty feed from deep in the corner to the opposite end of the ice, where Bondra (28 goals and 44 points in the last 35 games) hammered it into the net.

"Not a lot of players can make that pass," Bondra said. "I was hoping it was coming."

But the Capitals lagged defensively, taking their moribund opponents too lightly, perhaps. "I wasn't very pleased with the way we played up to that point," Wilson said. Rangers forward Michal Grosek scored a power-play goal with nine seconds left in the second period, and Radek Dvorak found the net 31 seconds into the third period, tying the score. Bondra put the game out of reach, then rookie Trent Whitfield reached a plateau of a very different kind.

The likable checking center entered this, his 47th NHL regular season game, still searching for a goal, a rut that ended with less than 14 minutes to play. Whitfield broke down the left wing on a two-on-one and whistled a slap shot to the far side, where the post and crossbar intersect, before crashing into the boards engulfed in elation. Whitfield was on his back, beaming, when his teammates flocked to him, celebrating his first goal as heartily as they had Bondra's 40th.

"I always knew it was going to happen sooner or later," Whitfield said. "I just put everything I had into the shot. Hopefully that's the first of many more to come."

Capitals Notes: Backup goalie Craig Billington (sore hand) should return to practice early next week, Wilson said. Wilson expects winger Ulf Dahlen (sore neck) to play Sunday against Ottawa. Defenseman Ken Klee, who suffered a slight concussion Wednesday night, did not play last night but should return next week. Winger Chris Simon (sore shoulder) is also out of Sunday's game but he too could return next week. Defenseman Rob Zettler returned after missing four games because of a sore shoulder. Brantt Myhres was a healthy scratch. . . .

There is some hope top prospect Kris Beech (separated shoulder) could return to his junior team in time for the playoffs in a few weeks, though that possibility seems remote. . . . Stephen Peat, Washington's enforcer of the future, is recovering well from a lengthy groin injury and should begin practicing with AHL Portland on Monday. . . . The Capitals alumni team will play a charity game at 3 p.m. Sunday before Washington's game against the Senators.

Peter Bondra (40 goals overall) holds off Brian Leetch en route to his second goal of the night at MCI Center. Capitals are 14-1-2-1 in their last 18 games.