LANDOVER -- Wayne Gretzky has been known to bring the best out of his teammates, but last night The Great One brought the best out of the Washington Capitals.
Though they couldn't slow the all-time leading scorer in National Hockey League history, the Capitals managed to stop the Los Angeles Kings long enough to pull out a 4-3 victory at the Capital Centre.
With the season's first sellout crowd of 18,130 roaring its approval, the Capitals watched a 2-0 lead evaporate before Michal Pivonka provided the game-winner 3 minutes, 34 seconds into the final period.
It was Washington's third straight victory, and the sixth for the Capitals in their past eight games. It was the second straight road defeat for Los Angeles (9-4-1).
More significant for Washington was that the victory came two days after the team returned from a long, but relatively successful, Western trip.
"That was a really tough game," Capitals coach Terry Murray said after Washington (8-7) moved over .500 for the first time this season. "Coming back from a road trip after seven or eight days is very difficult. There's a tendency to relax a little."
That seemed to happen to the Capitals after early goals by Kevin Hatcher and John Druce put Washington ahead, 2-0, after 7:52 of the opening period.
A goal by Tony Granato late in the first period, off a beautiful back-hand touch pass from Gretzky, cut the Kings' deficit to 2-1, and a blast by Dave Taylor tied the score at 2 with 8:23 left in the second period.
"We had to settle down defensively," Capitals right wing Steve Leach said. "You don't want to get into a shooting contest with a team like the Kings."
That is what it appeared to be, as Nick Kypreos put Washington back ahead, 3-2, and Gretzky followed with a short wrist shot past Capitals goaltender Mike Liut with 3:14 left in the second period.
After Leach hit the right post 50 seconds into the final period and Washington missed on back-to-back short-handed breakaway chances by Druce and Kelly Miller, Pivonka's shot seemed to surprise Kings goaltender Kelly Hrudey.
"I was staring in the zone, and the goalie couldn't see it because I was shooting through a defenseman," Pivonka said. "As soon as he saw the puck, it was too late. It was through his legs."
Said Hrudey: "I always expect a player to shoot. He just beat me. You're going to let in goals like that throughout the season. I wish it wasn't 3-3 in the third period."
After Pivonka's goal, the Capitals put a clamp on the Kings in general and Gretzky in particular. Gretzky finished with just three shots on goal and wasn't much of a factor down the stretch.
In fact, Washington limited Los Angeles to only four shots on goal in the final 16 minutes. Liut, who had some shaky moments during the middle of the game, settled down.
"That's a little bit of adversity we had to battle through," said Murray, who is without four regulars, including high-scoring Dino Ciccarelli and goaltender Don Beaupre, because of injuries. "We showed a lot of poise."
Asked what strategy was used to slow Gretzky, Murray said: "There's no magic. You've got to play a five-man defense when he's out there because he's so creative. You can't play him one-on-one."
Gretzky, who last week became the first player in NHL history to go over 2,000 points, took over the league's scoring lead this season last night. But the last two games were on his mind.
"We played five pretty good periods out of six the last two games, but we're 0-2," he said.
First period--1, Washington, Hatcher 4 (Leach), 1:39. 2, Washington, Druce 7 (Bondra, Pivonka), 12:08. 3, Los Angeles, Granato 8 (Gretzky, Sandstrom), 15:57. Penalties--Bondra, Was (holding), 7:03; Tippett, Was (holding), 13:22.
Second period--4, Los Angeles, Taylor 3 (Krushelnyski, Tonelli), 11:37. 5, Washington, Kypreos 3, 14:26. 6, Los Angeles, Gretzky 10 (McSorley, Kudelski), 16:16. Penalties--Tatarinov, Was (high-sticking), 7:12; Granato, LA (roughing), 13:59; Leach, Was (high-sticking), 13:59; Duchesne, LA (cross-checking), 17:03.
Third period--7, Washington, Pivonka 4 (Bondra), 3:34. Penalties--Taylor, LA (interference), 3:07; Hunter, Was (cross-checking), 3:07; Langway, Was (high-sticking), 13:17.
Shots on goal--Los Angeles 9-7-7--23. Washington 10-10-6--26. Power-play opportunities--Los Angeles 0 of 4; Washington 0 of 1. Goalies--Los Angeles, Hrudey, 4-3-1 (26 shots-22 saves). Washington, Liut, 6-4-0 (23-20). A--18,130. Referee--Paul Stewart. Linesmen--Dan McCourt, Mark Vines.