WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals are still looking for their offensive stars, but for one night, anyway, they played the thoughtful, controlled defensive game they have to play to win, and held on to a 2-1 victory over the Southeast Division co-leading Atlanta Thrashers.
The win ended the Caps' eight-game winless streak and six-game losing streak and provided their first winning celebration since opening night at MCI Center. Washington is 2-7-1, heading into tonight's game at Minnesota.
"I can't afford to wring their necks," said Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy when asked if that action entered his mind after seeing his team return to the kind of winning style that earned Washington its only other victory, against the New York Islanders.
That night, the Caps made good decisions, got the puck behind the opposing defense, worked hard to regain possession and set up their own scoring chances while preventing the opposition from developing any cohesiveness.
Until last night, that game plan had been all but abandoned.
"You want to understand why they can't see it themselves," Cassidy said. "I hope they buy into it because it works for us."
The goals in this game did not come from Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra or Dainius Zubrus. Instead it was two fine performances by Matt Pettinger, a four-year man who had scored just eight career goals, who scored his second of the season and Alexander Semin, a 19-year-old rookie from Russia, who returned to the lineup after sitting out the past three games.
Semin had been buzzing around Atlanta goalie Pasi Nurminen (36 saves) much of the first period, so it was no surprise to Nurminen when he saw Semin raging toward him with a little more than 30 seconds to go in the period.
What surprised him was the move.
Semin came in fast, drew Nurminen to his right and then pulled the puck around him to score backhanded into the empty net.
"The goalie forced him to make that play," said Peter Bondra, acting as interpreter for Semin, who does not speak English. "He is very happy to have his first NHL goal."
The goal was a rarity in more than one way. It was a power-play goal, just the team's ninth in 57 chances. It was the Caps' second goal of the first period, for only the second time this season. It was Semin's first NHL goal. And it gave Washington the lead for the rest of the night.
"We definitely played with vigor and determination and we played hard the whole game," said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig (19 saves). "But we've still got a long way to go to claw our way out. It's going to be a lot of work because playing like this is not easy."