Capitals 5, Blue Jackets 3
-- Midway through this hockey game, with his team appearing predictably vulnerable and teetering on the verge of defeat, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy decided to reunite his three premier offensive players on the same line. He hoped Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra could score enough to offset a mounting threat from the Columbus Blue Jackets, and they delivered, combining for seven points in a 5-3 victory at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night.
Bondra scored three goals and Jagr picked up a goal and two assists, providing some rare breathing room for the Capitals in the second period. This game was a meeting between the worst team in the East Conference and the worst in the West, and losing to the four-year-old franchise might have sunk the Capitals (7-15-1-1) to new lows coming off Friday's humbling loss to Montreal.
"[Friday] night we went home with our heads down wondering all night what happened and why we lost," said Bondra, who notched his franchise-best 19th career hat trick. "Tonight it's a different story, and we can feel happy and enjoy this for a day."
The evening did not begin so smoothly for that line, when their lax defensive coverage was responsible for the opening goal. Rick Nash, who was selected first overall in the 2002 draft and has scored roughly one-third of Columbus's goals this season, popped in a rebound with no Capital nearby 58 seconds into the game.
Nash's line and Jagr's line traded chances all game long. Jagr, who has five goals and 13 assists in an 11-game scoring streak, snapped up a loose puck near the blueline and sent a waffling shot past Marc Denis's glove 17 seconds later, one of several soft shots to elude the goalie tonight.
"That was a big goal for us with the way things have gone for us," Cassidy said. "Maybe the difference in the game."
Washington endured another setback before taking charge. Tyler Wright was given too much space to deflect the puck from the crease on a power play, then the Capitals capitalized on their first power play, scoring 70 seconds later. This goal was born of textbook execution: Dainius Zubrus won the draw to Lang, whose 15-game point streak is two shy of the franchise high, and he dumped the puck to Sergei Gonchar at the right point, who swept it to Bondra for a vintage one-timer.
The Capitals went ahead less than three minutes later, shortly after Cassidy dropped Kip Miller from the first line to the third and promoted Bondra, a switch that was beneficial on both fronts. First, Miller accepted a crisp pass from Steve Eminger and advanced it to Brian Sutherby on the rush, and Sutherby never broke stride as he bettered Denis for his second goal of the season.
Bondra, now second on the team with 10 goals, then took a pass from Jagr and sent an innocent-looking shot to net that Denis misplayed, and the goalie was yanked after allowing four goals on 14 shots in 31 minutes of play.
"For whatever reason Kip has been the guy on that [top] line getting the puck in shooting position, and he hasn't been shooting the puck," Cassidy said. "Peter's got that bomb and he isn't afraid to use it. They came together tonight and I'm glad they did, because we needed the goals."
Jagr, who is slowed by a groin injury, was in close communication with Bondra throughout the game, asking the speedy winger to stay away from the boards and be ready to shoot.
"I told him to stay behind a little bit and find the open spot, because he's going to score a lot of goals," Jagr said. "I don't want him to be too quick because I can't pass it to him. . . . With my groin, I cannot shoot and skate very well, so I think it was perfect timing to put Peter on my line, because he can really shoot."
Washington's top four scorers -- Lang, Jagr, Bondra and Zubrus -- have accounted for 25 of its 30 road goals the season, and four of five tonight. Nash tallied his 15th goal while on the power play 39 seconds into the third period, before Jagr and Bondra collaborated again to restore the two-goal lead; Jagr nudged his own rebound to Bondra, and he tapped it in easily.
"That goal was like taking a cookie from a cookie jar," Bondra said. "But when you are playing with guys like that who are on a roll, you get to score those kind of goals."