Capitalizing on another goal

In thick of run at title, streaking Washington rallies vs. Senators, 6-5

March 12, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Adam Oates doesn't want to play for a team without goals. If a team doesn't have goals, he says, it can become complacent. Complacency is the enemy of the Washington Capitals, a team that has been the hottest thing on ice in the NHL since Dec. 1.

"It's hard to play without having a goal every night," said Oates, who has his eyes firmly fixed on the Eastern Conference title. "I like them. We're still fighting for first place, and it's a good goal."

It's a good goal, and after yesterday's comeback, 6-5 victory against the Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa Senators, it is also well within reason.

The Capitals, 30-10-4-1 since Dec. 1, are within three points of the Senators, just one behind the second-place New Jersey Devils. In the Southeast Division, they've bullied their way to a hefty 15-point lead over their closest rival, the Carolina Hurricanes.

"When [you] set out a goal like winning the conference title, we get laughed at," Capitals coach Ron Wilson said. "But I don't want to be a minimalist and get a little past the goal we set. Success is reaching for things a little bit beyond your grasp."

Wilson wasn't pleased with the way his team got down 4-1 yesterday, and was still behind 5-2 going into the third period. But, he was pleased by the way his team responded.

Responding to adversity has been the Caps' normal operating procedure for most of the season.

"It's confidence," Wilson said. "We've developed a consistency. We don't believe we're lucky anymore. We look different. We act different. We're not just happy to be a team that's hot. ... Last year, I don't think we ever believed we were as good as our record, but you can't be lucky this long."

Even the sight of goalie Olaf Kolzig being pulled before the start of the third period for backup Corey Hirsch didn't shake the Capitals.

"We showed a lot of character," said right wing Ulf Dahlen, who assisted with Oates on Steve Konowalchuk's game-winning goal. "We never quit. We never doubted ourselves and the results. The feeling is unbelievable."

The Capitals, who have lost only twice in the last 19 games, are in a groove, and Caps general manager George McPhee is loathe to do anything that would change the chemistry.

The trading deadline arrives tomorrow at 3 p.m., and McPhee says he has "nothing" working.

Even though Washington is in the minority when it comes to having a big, dominating center, McPhee isn't interested in making a shortsighted move.

With Oates, 38, he has a center that Wilson says, "is still drinking from the fountain of youth."

Last night, he had three more assists to move back into sole possession of the NHL assists lead (with 62). If he's in that position at the end of the regular season, he'll replace Wayne Gretzky, who currently holds the honor, as the oldest player to lead the league in assists.

Friday night, in a Caps 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers, that team's coach, Ron Low - himself a former Capitals goaltender - said, "I don't know if I've seen Oates play better in a long, long time."

And last night, Ottawa's veteran winger, Shawn McEachern, expanded on that take.

"They've got a good team," he said. "Oates and [Peter] Bondra on offense. Bondra and [Sergei] Gonchar on defense. Kolzig in the net. That's the nucleus they thrive off of."

Bondra is back to his All-Star form. He scored his 41st goal last night. And Oates says the start of the Capitals' turnaround this season came when he was moved to the point on the power play in late October. But though Bondra has excelled in that position - he leads the league with 20 power-play goals, a mark that also ties the team's regular-season record - it's not just Bondra that makes the difference this season. It's not just Oates. Or Gonchar. Or Calle Johansson, Washington's other defensive brick. Or Kolzig.

The anchor is still the defense-first system, with two forwards down low, the center between and near the top of the two circles and the two defensemen near the blue line, guarding against the counter-attack.

But the Capitals also now have three solid scoring lines. Instead of having two goal-scorers, they can count on contributions from 10, all with 12 or more goals. And other players - like rookie Trent Whitfield, who scored his first career goal Friday night and followed it up with his second last night - are now getting in the act.

And there is the power play, the No. 1 power play in the league, hitting at a 22.7 percent rate.

"We're younger, but we're also more experienced," said Bondra. "[Jeff] Halpern, [Richard] Zednik are more experienced and contributing. We've got guys here who learned from our last Stanley Cup experience. We won 12 games to get to the final, but it wasn't enough. But if you go through that kind of experience, you learn from it."

That's what Wilson thinks, too.

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