LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals must have thought they'd gone to Fantasyland last night.
As a crowd of 17,616 -- 515 short of a sellout -- watched, Washington goaltender Rick Tabaracci returned to action for the first time since spraining his wrist Dec. 23 and shut out the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 3-0, as the Capitals evened their record at 17-17-3.
It was Washington's first shutout of the season and the first since Tabaracci blanked the New York Rangers on April 14.
Last night, Tabaracci stopped all 26 of Anaheim's shots.
If that wasn't enough to bring cheers for the home team, a goal by the most unlikely hero of all, Enrico Ciccone, was.
The 6-foot-4 defenseman had played 67 NHL games without producing a goal.
But last night, with the Capitals holding a 1-0 lead and the Ducks on the attack, Ciccone came through on a breakaway, faking out Ducks goalie Ron Tugnutt and flipping a backhand winner between Tugnutt's left arm and the near post.
The goal with 7:42 left in the middle period changed the game, forcing the Ducks to open up a little more, which helped result in Washington's third goal, by Dimitri Khristich with 11:14 gone in the third.
"Somebody put Wayne Gretzky in the game?" said Tugnutt. "Worst thing I could have done was look to see who it was. I said, 'What could this guy do?' I looked up and thought he was going to dump it in the corner. It looked pretty, didn't it? He's got a long reach.
"Those are the guys who are the toughest to stop, because they don't have a clue what they're doing. If they don't, I certainly don't."
But Ciccone did have a clue. He had been working on it. He tried that backhand flip during the Capitals' skills competition Monday, and it worked there. Why not last night?
"I felt like a kid, like a 5-year-old alone in the candy store," said Ciccone. "I've been aiming for that goal. It wasn't something I had to do; that would have been pressure. But it was something I wanted to do for a long time. I hoped it would come before 140 games. I didn't want to be like Tony Twist."
Twist, a Quebec Nordiques left wing, has played in 149 games without a goal.
"It was in the back of my head, and I had a little feeling about it
tonight," Ciccone said. "Hatch [team captain Kevin Hatcher] came up to me before the game and said, 'Hey, your dad's here. You've got to get one tonight.'
"I scored a goal. I'm going to be happy for two weeks!"
The Capitals will have only until noon today to relish the shutout before beginning preparation for tomorrow's 1:30 p.m. game here with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But Washington coach Terry Murray said he is going to put
Ciccone's goal, which was set up by a pass from Dave Poulin, on the video machine for his teammates to watch again and again.
"It's going to be like the telephone answering machine," Murray said. "Every time you turn it on, you're going to get the same message."
The victory improved the Capitals' record to .500 for the first time since Nov. 16, when it was 9-9-0.
"When we reached .500 [last month], we let ourselves slide," said Murray. "We have to make sure we don't let ourselves off mentally. Maybe now we can start to build. Maybe this will get us over the hump. Since we started 0-6, our record isn't that bad [17-11-3].
"It's coming. The last few games we've been getting some points. But we need to play at a higher rate. We need to get in a good position for the post-All-Star break."