Capitals 3, Islanders 0

On the surface, protecting a two-goal lead at home against a solid but not spectacular opponent does not qualify as a significant accomplishment. But for the Washington Capitals, who have a habit of letting teams crawl back into games, it was a step in the right direction.

The Capitals put away the New York Islanders, 3-0, at MCI Center last night, backing up their rhetoric about needing to thoroughly shut down an opponent. Washington had allowed St. Louis and New Jersey to come back recently, spurring debate about how playoff-ready the Capitals might be. Last night's air-tight performance was a departure from their careless ways.

Goalie Olaf Kolzig stopped 20 shots to earn his 29th career shutout and second of this season. Kolzig made a few difficult saves in the opening minutes and stopped Alexei Yashin and Jason Wiemer from close range in the third period, but had little to do in between. Jeff Halpern's empty-net goal ended the evening.

"If we play like that we're going to beat a lot of good teams," said Kolzig, who had stressed the import of playing better defense and stifling quality teams leading up to this game. "I think the toughest save I had to make was the first save of the game. . . .

"We really suffocated them."

The only thing not stellar about the Capitals last night was their power play, which went 0 for 5 and wasted four chances to stuff the Islanders in the first period. Washington, undefeated in its last 14 games against New York at home and a loser of just one of the last 27 games between these teams dating from 1997 (23-1-3), spent eight of the first 16 minutes of the game on the power play and had nothing to show for it, not even a shot on goal.

A power play that was unstoppable in January never got started last night. Players ran into each other. Passes were too casual. Nothing went quite right.

"We've got to take some blame for that," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "But they kill penalties really well."

Washington did score once with an extra attacker, though, on a delayed penalty. Jaromir Jagr (26 points in 14 games) came on the ice for Kolzig in time to collect a pass from defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski, who earned his first point as a Capital last night. Jagr pumped a shot to the net as Konowalchuk spun away from defenseman Radek Martinek, and the shot struck Konowalchuk and entered the net.

New York never got a chance to gather momentum in the second period, quickly falling behind 2-0. Halpern chipped the puck ahead to Peter Bondra as they left the defensive zone and Bondra kept the puck on a two on one. Recently, the slumping winger has been passing away such opportunities, but last night Bondra, who turned 34 yesterday, slammed the puck hard into the near side of the net less than two minutes into the period, scoring his 22nd goal of the season. Goalie Garth Snow's glove was much too late to provide any deterrent.

The Islanders never mounted a charge from there.

"We didn't particularly like our game," New York Coach Peter Laviolette said. "We were on our heels; they were on their toes. They were hitting; we were being hit."

"We forced them to go through groups of four or five players instead of one or two," Washington Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "And they just weren't able to do it."

New York could not build a forecheck or sustain an attack, perhaps a cause of the fatigue from killing so many penalties. Kolzig made a few reflex saves late in the second period but faced only 10 shots through 40 minutes, a rare respite in a season in which he has been pummeled with more than 30 shots per game. The Capitals refrained from getting too fancy, maintained a forecheck and never let the Islanders in the game.

"Our game plan the whole game from the start was defense, defense," Konowalchuk said. "We allowed too much against Jersey [on Wednesday] and we carried it through tonight.

"Part of us playing good defense is not sitting back, because part of our strength is cycling down low and getting pucks deep and making them work the whole ice. And we did that for 60 minutes."

Capitals celebrate their opening goal, scored by Steve Konowalchuk, right, and set up by Jaromir Jagr, center, midway through first period at MCI Center.Islanders goaltender Garth Snow tries to keep track of Jaromir Jagr, who circles the net in the third period.