WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals sat hunched forward on the bench, leaning on the boards as the minutes slipped away in the final period of last night's 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A study in perfect harmony, their blue gloves gripped the red railing, perfectly spaced, their eyes a single focus on their teammates on the ice. They sat watching with such intense stillness they could have been a photograph.
"There's such anticipation," said Caps coach Bruce Cassidy. "They could see the tide was turning. We've been there in the past, hanging on, with guys coming at you. But we had the extra jump tonight."
The jump was everywhere.
It was on the ice, when left wing Kip Miller beat the Penguins' fine rookie goalie, Sebastien Caron (26 saves), with 8:29 to play for the game-winner at MCI Center. And it was on the bench, where the team erupted like no photograph ever had.
It was Miller (a goal and assist) who scored, but the goal was a reward for the line around him. Michael Nylander gave him the puck, but it was Jaromir Jagr who had kept the play low around the net much of the night, wearing down the Penguins' defense. And it was defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ken Klee digging that last puck out from the boards that got it out to Jagr.
And in the end, it was a reward for the team effort that came together after they had fallen behind in the first period.
"We didn't play our best game, but we found a way," said Jagr, who still needs three goals to reach career No. 500. "I'll take the win rather than the goals."
It was a big win for Washington. It came on the heels of a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, in which the Caps blew a two-goal lead late in the second period.
It came against a historic nemesis, who, more often than not, has found a way to beat and embarrass the Caps in close, hard-fought games.
And, it sends Washington into the NHL All-Star break on a positive note, with a victory and a three-point lead in the Southeast Division.
Defenseman Brendan Witt took a puck in the head while blocking a shot, without lasting ill effects, and Dainius Zubrus, who just returned from a concussion Jan. 25, took a puck in the ankle, but he was also OK once the numbness wore off.
At 16:10 of the third, the Capitals were again lucky when officials noticed Pittsburgh's Dick Tarnstrom holding away from the puck as Randy Robitaille beat goalie Olie Kolzig (23 saves) and wiped off the score.
"We were fortunate the call went our way," Cassidy said. "But this game showed we've made strides from where we were in November. In November, if we'd gotten down by a goal early, we might have gone in another direction. But tonight we recognized what we needed to do. We had to take the puck down low and grind it out, and we did."
Pittsburgh 1 0 0 - 1
Washington 0 1 1 - 2
First period - 1, Pittsburgh, Rozsival 3 (Straka, Hrdina), 12:38. Penalties - Doig, Was (roughing), 8:20; Nieminen, Pit (roughing), 8:20; Bondra, Was (interference), 9:10; Bergevin, Pit (hooking), 14:04; Salomonsson, Was (holding stick), 17:51.
Second period - 2, Washington, Gonchar 13 (Miller, Nylander), 1:21. Penalties - Halpern, Was (high-sticking), 4:36; Donovan, Pit (holding), 10:16; Bondra, Was (tripping), 11:13.
Third period - 3, Washington, Miller 11 (Nylander, Jagr), 11:31. Penalty-Tarnstrom, Pit (holding), 3:50.
Shots on goal - Pittsburgh 13-6-5-24. Washington 7-6-15-28. Power-play opportunities - Pittsburgh 0 of 4; Washington 0 of 3. Goalies - Pittsburgh, Caron 3-4-1 (28 shots-26 saves). Washington, Kolzig 20-14-5 (24-23). A - 18,277 (18,277). T-2:22.