Iafrate's goal sparks Caps past Panthers, 4-2

February 27, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- The Eastern Conference race is so close heading into the final quarter of the season, there is barely room to squeeze a puck between the Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers.

But with last night's 4-2 win over the Panthers at USAir Arena, the Caps opened a four-point lead over their closest competition for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.

Washington used a pretty Al Iafrate slap shot from inside the right circle with 9:44 to play to forge a 3-2 lead and Kelly Miller wrapped up the victory with 27.5 seconds left, scoring into an open net.

"Every point right now, it doesn't matter who they come against," said defenseman Sylvain Cote, who assisted on Washington's second goal.

"We need to get every point we can and move on. Second place [New Jersey is seven points ahead in Atlantic Division] isn't too ,, far ahead to not think about it. If we keep playing like this, we can get there."

Coach Jim Schoenfeld was brought in to improve the Capitals' attitude as well as their record and it's obviously working. The team heads to Hartford today for a 5 p.m. game against the Whalers, who have won both meetings this season.

"We just have to go there and do the job," said Schoenfeld. "I know they've had our number and know it's a short turnaround to play the next game. But we're not making any excuses before we play the game. This game was a good steppingstone, to even this series with Florida. And if we can beat Hartford, that will be a good steppingstone. It builds confidence, when you know you can beat any and every team in the league."

The Caps finished the season series against the expansion Panthers at 2-2-1.

Goalie Don Beaupre continued his strong play, but Washington's defense was generous.

Caps defenseman Calle Johansson bounced a shot off Panthers defenseman Geoff Smith and into the Florida net 36 seconds into the second period to put the Caps on the board first. The 1-0 lead held up until with 6:21 to play, the Caps let Beaupre down for the first time.

Beaupre made the initial save, but when the puck bounced out, Panthers right wing Mike Foligno was there to collect it. He was able to backhand it into the net when Enrico Ciccone got tangled up with Beaupre, opening the right side of the net.

Mike Ridley answered with 2:51 left in the period for the Caps' second power-play goal of the night.

Center Dale Hunter then seemed to do the Caps a favor. He got in a fight with Panthers right wing Scott Mellanby and took Florida's second-leading scorer off the ice for five minutes, with 2:10 to go.

That's when the Caps let Beaupre down for the second time.

The Panthers' Tom Fitzgerald got the puck to Stu Barnes for a breakaway and Beaupre came up big on the stop. But then Bod Kudelski, Florida's leading scorer, streaked in uncontested for a follow-up that Beaupre couldn't stop, tying the game again with 1:02 left in the period.

NOTES: Pat Peake (torn rib cartilage) learned today he will be out from four to six weeks.

Florida 0 2 0 -- 2

Washington 0 2 2 -- 4

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