Surging Caps grab division lead

Panthers beaten, 4-2, relinquish first place

March 08, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It had been 11 years since the Washington Capitals played a late-season game for the lead in their division, and tension was in the air last night at MCI Center.

Long before the first puck was struck, the crowd of 15,035 was abuzz. Would the Caps blow it? Would Florida, whose general manager, Bryan Murray, and coach, Terry Murray, once guided the Caps, be the orchestrators of the end of this fairy tale run?

The answers came fast. The Caps didn't blink.

"It's a good feeling," said right wing Ulf Dahlen, who had a goal and an assist in the Caps' 4-2 victory. "It was one of the biggest games of the year and we played good."

Last night, with pressure aplenty, the Caps were cool and poised as they took over first place in the Southeast Division from Florida, taking a two-point lead over the Panthers.

The Caps also moved from fifth place to third place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, and are just seven behind the conference-leading New Jersey Devils.

"I thought we played an outstanding game," said Washington coach Ron Wilson. "Defensively, we didn't expose ourselves [even though] we're missing two very important defensemen and three very important forwards. We just didn't give them anything, and any advantage that we created, we took advantage of."

Dahlen helped get Washington on the board early, when he made a perfect pass to Steve Konowalchuk 2: 08 into the game. That goal and another by Adam Oates at 13: 44 seemed to sap Florida of any confidence.

Panthers goalie Mike Vernon, who could do little to stop Washington's attack, said, "They got a couple of breaks and we started to press. We never came out with the zip we needed and once they scored on the second shift of the game, we were behind the 8-ball."

Florida is not alone in feeling that way against Washington.

With goalie Olaf Kolzig playing near-flawless hockey, the Caps have been on an incredible run, going 23-5-6 since Christmas. They are the new Beasts of the East. And general manager George McPhee says that what his team is doing is incredible.

"There aren't many streaks in this league like this," McPhee said. "Not many are maintained for three months."

Washington, 35-21-11 overall, is the best against Eastern Conference foes this season, going 28-13-5. Its 11-4-2 divisional record also represents the best among its Southeast Division opponents.

After last night, the Caps are on a 9-0-1 run in the Southeast.

And Kolzig, who has the word "Zilla" on the front of his helmet, is playing like he really is Godzilla. He made 52 saves in a 2-2 tie against Detroit on Friday, came back with a 28-save performance in a 2-1 win against Buffalo on Sunday and was named NHL Player of the Week on Monday.

Last night, he stopped another 28 shots, as his team was outgunned 30-17.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have been slip-sliding away. Washington has made up 16 points on them in the past six weeks, and Florida came into last night's game breathing hard with a 3-6-1 record in its previous 10 games.

A young team led by NHL leading goal-scorer Pavel Bure -- whose biggest headlines of late have come from the news that he "might be" engaged to women's tennis player Anna Kournikova -- the Panthers seem to have the old Caps luck -- or lack of it.

Nothing they tried worked with any consistency last night.

"Each one of the four goals scored were crucial breakdowns," Terry Murray said. "It's disappointing that we lost, no question."

The only question for Washington is: Can it catch New Jersey?

"It is the same question we were asked months ago about Florida," said Peter Bondra, whose goal early in the second period put the Caps ahead 3-0. "A month ago we didn't even think we had a chance for this. Now we just want to keep it up. The way we are playing, though, we have a chance to win every game."

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