Capitals 3, Devils 2

As the third period began last night, there seemed to be but one lingering question for the Washington Capitals. It was not whether they would win, but by how much?

They led New Jersey by three goals, virtually ensuring their season-best fourth straight win and five-game unbeaten streak. They were aiming for their second straight shutout.

But by the end, goaltender Olaf Kolzig had lost his shutout bid on two power-play goals and was frantically trying to maintain a lead, which he did in Washington's 3-2 victory over the Devils at MCI Center.

Kolzig made a beautiful, stretching glove save on Joe Nieuwendyk with three minutes to play, and the Capitals defeated the Eastern Conference's second-best team in the first game of a home-and-home series. They also moved above the .500 mark for the first time since November.

"We were playing a great hockey game going into the third period and penalties seem to catch up with us again," Kolzig said. "But the bottom line is we ended up winning the game. We didn't really press [in the third period] like we did in the first two periods. We kind of sat back a little bit and we've got to learn when we have the lead not to change things."

Third-period difficulties aside, Washington (17-16-3) has gone from one of the most porous clubs in the league to a bedrock of defensive hockey, allowing 10 goals over the past six games while adhering to a simplified system.

The Capitals, who play at New Jersey tonight, have won six of their past seven games here and are 10-5 at MCI Center this season. They play seven of their next 10 games at home.

Another authoritative first period provided a springboard for success. The Capitals dominated the early going and scored the all-important opening goal for the fourth straight game (Washington is 11-2-1 when doing so and 6-14-2 when failing to do so). That trend has helped them rise above .500 for the first time since Nov. 15, a span of 18 games.

"It's lot more fun to come to the rink when your push is not just to get to .500, but to push into a playoff spot," center Jeff Halpern said. "Every game you get over .500 gives you a little bit more of a chance to get there."

Halpern's line, with wingers Mike Grier and Steve Konowalchuk, struck with eight seconds remaining in the first period. Goalie Martin Brodeur (14 saves) scrambled after momentarily losing his stick and had just relocated the puck when defenseman Sergei Gonchar dumped it back behind the net. Halpern sent it out to the slot, and Konowalchuk's one-timer went through Brodeur's legs.

The checking line has been outstanding and is pacing Washington's attack while stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar have not been as prolific as usual. Halpern's line has combined for eight goals and 18 points in the last seven games and opens the scoring frequently.

"They've kind of taken it upon themselves to do that, and that's great because we need it," Coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Washington scored again late in the second period. Bondra appeared offside on a two-on-one with Kip Miller, but the whistle never came and Bondra's shot skipped past Brodeur with less than four minutes to play in the period. John Madden immediately headed to the penalty box, and the Capitals' five-game power play rut (0 for 22) ended in timely fashion.

Miller danced through the slot and fed Jagr, who found the top corner with 3 minutes 31 seconds remaining in the period. Washington was 3 for 57 on the man advantage over 14 games prior to that goal. Jagr, the focal point of the unit, netted his first power play goal since Nov. 23.

Jamie Langenbrunner snapped Kolzig's shutout streak at 126 minutes 14 seconds by scoring a power-play goal 67 seconds into the third period. New Jersey capitalized on its next power play as well, with Sergei Brylin's re-direction cutting the margin to 3-2 with about seven minutes left in regulation time.

"I thought we played a really good hockey game," Cassidy said. "We just got into a bit of penalty trouble."

The Devils ultimately were doomed by their tepid offense. New Jersey has scored the second-fewest goals in the conference and has 31 goals in 16 road games, netting three goals only three times away from home.

Capitals Notes: The team plans to activate enforcer Stephen Peat from the injured reserve list today and assign him to the minors for a few games of conditioning. Winger Andreas Salomonsson also will head to Portland for conditioning. Salomonsson was a healthy scratch last night, as was forward Glen Metropolit, who has dressed for one of the past eight games. Defenseman Rick Berry was scratched, and Jean-Francois Fortin played for the first time in two weeks. . . .

Former backup goalie Craig Billington was perusing the final details of his buyout agreement last night and is expected to sign it today. Billington cleared waivers earlier this month and his career, which spanned 15 NHL seasons, could be over.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar battles Devils' Jamie Langenbrunner near Capitals' net. Washington went over .500 mark for first time since Nov. 15.