With Penguins on deck, Caps hoping to go long

Washington finishes with 2-1 win over T.B.

series starts Thursday

Hockey

April 09, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - If the matchup is Washington-Pittsburgh, it must be NHL playoff time.

Yesterday afternoon, Ulf Dahlen scored the game-winner 32 seconds into the third period to give the Washington Capitals a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay, as the Capitals brought their regular season to a close before the 11th sold-out crowd of 18,672 at MCI Center.

It meant the Caps finished with a 41-27-10-4 record, 96 points, the Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. And though team captain Adam Oates couldn't find a point yesterday, he finishes tied with Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr for the NHL lead in assists with 69.

At age 38, Oates becomes the oldest player to lead the league in assists, breaking the record previously held by a then-37-year-old Wayne Gretzky, when he also shared the title with Jagr in 1997-98.

Washington's reward for all the effort is another date with its old nemesis Pittsburgh. The two teams have met six previous times in the postseason, with the Penguins winning five.

When the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs open here Thursday night, this will be their seventh meeting in 11 seasons.

"We've more than accomplished our goals in this regular season," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "Now it's time to ratchet it down to zero and start over. ... It's a steep plateau to climb, to get up to their [Penguins'] level. ... Nowhere, in any paper or on any Web site will you see us picked as the favorite. We're going to have to go work for every inch of space we get."

The startling thing about it all is the Capitals can't wait to play the Penguins, who will indeed be the favorite despite their sixth-seeded position.

In fact, the Capitals' locker room was awash in smiles.

"We've worked hard all year to position ourselves to play this series," said Capitals right wing Peter Bondra. "I'm looking forward to it. No kidding. We're all looking forward to it. We've got a chance to beat the best."

Steve Konowalchuk, who tied the game at 1-1 yesterday and reached a single-season career high with his 24th goal, felt the same way even though 20 of his 27 playoff games have been played against Pittsburgh.

"Maybe it would be nice to go to a different city, to a different restaurant," he said. "But it's always exciting to play them every year. We know them and they know us. It's fun."

The reason for all this anticipation is that the Capitals seem to have found their game again.

After being the hottest team in hockey from Dec. 1 through March 11, running off a 30-10-4-1 record that included beating Pittsburgh twice, the team had lapsed into a funk. It lost eight of its next 10 games and gave up 32 goals. Not a good thing for a team that prides itself on defense.

"We'd certainly lost our edge," said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig. "But the last few games, our team has gotten back to playing the way we were when we were unbeaten in February [9-1-1, in fact]. We've gotten the edge back."

In the three games that closed out this season, the Caps went 2-1, and allowed just three goals. Kolzig seems to have righted himself, giving up just one goal in his last two starts.

"Why shouldn't we smile?" said Kolzig, who made 23 saves against Tampa Bay, allowing only one goal to Adrian Aucoin on a first-period power play. "We've played great against Pittsburgh this season. We're playing good hockey now.

"There has been so much history with [Pittsburgh] that people around here make such a big deal about it. But if you want to win the Stanley Cup, you have to beat everybody anyway. They're just the first team we have to face. We just can't listen to the media or read about this series. When everyone on this team is playing together we're a great team, too."

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