Capitals 4, Oilers 2

There were 94 seconds left on the MCI Center scoreboard yesterday afternoon when maintenance workers scampered across the ice to collect a bevy of hats that had been tossed from the stands, delaying the end of a rousing victory for the Washington Capitals.

One man was primarily responsible for both the outpouring of head gear and the final result. Winger Peter Bondra had just capped his 18th career hat trick, helping Washington erase a two-goal deficit in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, moving the Capitals within one point of the Eastern Conference's final playoff seed and one game of the .500 mark (27-28-10-1).

"It feels good any time people cheer for you or for the team," Bondra said. "I use that to my advantage and take energy from them and hopefully bring it to the team and use it in the game. It's kind of a good feeling."

The Capitals improved to 7-2-2 over their last 11 games with Bondra accounting for six of Washington's nine goals over the last three games and breaking out of a two-month funk (three goals in 19 games).

Bondra put this game away with a vintage effort. He grabbed the puck at Washington's blue line and skated the length of the ice, allowing defenseman Brendan Witt to join the rush and create a two-on-one. Bondra then peered over to Witt, never once eyeing on the net, and turned slightly, firing the puck past goalie Tommy Salo.

"I didn't want to show him I was going to shoot," said Bondra, who is tied for fourth in the NHL with 33 goals. "It ended up being the right choice."

Bondra scored all of Washington's goals yesterday save for the game winner, which went to Dmitri Khristich. Coach Ron Wilson juggled his lines with the Capitals trailing in the second period, moving Khristich up to center the third line and swapping wingers Glen Metropolit and Chris Simon on the top two lines. The maneuvers yielded strong results.

Khristich scored his first goal since Dec. 28 -- a 25-game span -- about four minutes into the third period, making it 3-2. Steve Konowalchuk carried the puck down the right wing and fed defenseman Ken Klee at the point while Khristich went to the net -- textbook hockey -- and sent a backhander over Salo, who rolled across the crease.

"He's got the skills to do things like that," Wilson said of Khristich. "But it seems he needs to be demoted in some sort of way to get him to wake up."

Wilson's entire team needed a jolt yesterday after a sloppy start. The Capitals quickly fell behind by two goals with goaltender Olaf Kolzig, prone to allowing soft goals this season, at fault. Klee made the first mistake, leaving a blind drop pass behind the net 90 seconds into the game. Jitterbug center Mike Comrie easily picked off the pass and stuffed it behind Kolzig, who reacted late.

Kolzig was beaten on two of the first six shots he faced. Edmonton center Todd Marchant, known more for his defense than scoring touch, made the score 2-0 about 12 minutes in, firing a relatively routine shot that eluded Kolzig to the far side.

"I think Olie would say he should have had both of those," Wilson said.

"It wasn't a good start, that's for sure," said Kolzig, who recovered to make 22 straight saves.

Bondra took over from there. He scored his first goal 77 seconds into the second period with his team barely unable to register a shot on goal to that point. Sergei Gonchar, the NHL's highest scoring defenseman, faked two slap shots before finding Bondra on the far side -- a brilliant guise -- and Bondra smacked the bouncing pass under the crossbar.

Bondra scored again 12 minutes later on one of his first shifts with Metropolit on the opposite wing. Kolzig made a save and the rebound flipped high to the blue line, where Metropolit touched it ahead, springing Bondra for a breakaway. Bondra, Washington's all-time leader in goals, did not hesitate, flying toward Salo and beating him low to the glove side, tying the game at 2.

"I thought he had nothing to shoot at," Salo said. "But he found a hole."

Capitals Notes: Wilson benched winger Ulf Dahlen, the team's fourth-highest goal scorer, in the third period yesterday, citing ineffective play. "If you're sleeping on the bench, I'm not going to wake you up," Wilson said. "You can sit there and sleep and somebody else can take your spot." . . . Center Adam Oates extended his assists streak to 11 games, longest in the NHL this season. Oates leads the league with 54 assists. . . . Bondra's last hat trick was March 9, 2001. . . . Winger Dainius Zubrus is expected to return from a broken hand by the weekend. Defenseman Rob Zettler and winger Stephen Peat were scratched. . . . Defenseman Patrick Boileau was recalled from Portland, Maine, but did not play and is expected to return to the minors shortly. . . .

Kristopher O'Bryant, a youth hockey player from Washington, will represent the region in the annual Willie O'Ree All-Star Game in Columbus later this month, which is named after the NHL's first black player and showcases ethnic diversity in hockey. . . . Owner Ted Leonsis said the hats thrown on the ice yesterday will be donated to a homeless shelter. . . . Yesterday's game was the last afternoon contest on Washington's schedule.

Peter Bondra skates away from Edmonton's Tommy Salo after completing his 18th career hat trick. Capitals moved to within one point of playoff spot.Before rally, Andrei Nikolishin, left, and the Capitals stumbled to 2-0 deficit to Eric Brewer and Oilers.