- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

In the stands at MCI Center last night, the Washington fans chanted, "First place, first place," as the Capitals' game with the Florida Panthers wound down.

It's been a long time since Caps fans have been able to utter those words.

The Caps soared into sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division with a 4-2 win over Florida, the team that had been on top since Oct. 16. As recently as Jan. 15, the Caps trailed the Panthers by 16 points in the standings, and Washington coach Ron Wilson termed the team "uncatchable."

The division title also carries an automatic top-three seed for the playoffs, but no one was taking a division championship for granted last night. Washington and Florida each have 15 games left, and there is no guarantee the Panthers can't catch fire just as quickly as the Caps did. The Caps are 23-5-6 since Christmas.

Steve Konowalchuk (13th goal of the season), Adam Oates (13th), Peter Bondra (19th) and Ulf Dahlen (11th) staked Olie Kolzig to a 4-0 lead before the second period was over, and the big goalie coasted to his 32nd win of the season, one short of his career high.

"Olie is playing the best hockey of his career right now. He's playing unbelievable," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "But I think we played pretty good hockey tonight, too. I think we had as many scoring chances as they did."

Washington was outshot 30-17, which was a meaningless statistic last night, just as it was back on Dec. 4 when the Caps outshot the Panthers 34-14 but lost 2-1 in Florida.

"I got to tell you this." Johansson said. "This was the best work ethic from us in a couple weeks. It was a great, tremendous job by the forwards. It made our job pretty easy as defensemen. [The forwards] hustled and worked, they put pressure on their forwards, they never got a lot of time with the puck. We played a good game, I thought."

Washington was so effective as it built up its lead that Pavel Bure, the leading goal-scorer in the league, was held to two harmless shots and was minus-3 defensively. Bure has just two goals in five games against Washington this season.

The Caps were never in trouble. Konowalchuk scored 2:08 into the game, and Oates followed at 13:44 of the first. Bondra, with only his second goal in 10 games, scored the game-winner in the second minute of the middle period, and it was mop-up time after that.

"Definitely tonight was a big one," Bondra said about his goal. "I feel good. We got momentum going, and it's a really fun time to play right now. Two months ago, you don't even think about [first place]. There wasn't even a chance. Now it's reality. We catch them, we pass them and if we keep it up, we look forward to catching [Eastern Conference leader] New Jersey.

"The way we're playing, we have a chance to win every night," Bondra said. "Especially Olie, the way he's playing. He's our everything. The way he gives us a chance to win every night, sometimes we just have to score two goals, and we win the game."

Panthers coach Terry Murray, the former Caps coach, was impressed with the way the Caps have turned things around.

"It's disappointing, no question about it, given the position we were in a couple weeks ago and the way it has unfolded," Murray said. "They're rolling pretty good."

Wilson knows how Murray feels.

"They slumped like we did early in the season, and we've been almost perfect," Wilson said. "We've only lost five games since Christmas, and that's what keeps us going, the fear that a team like Montreal or Carolina could catch us. We've managed to chop a lead like what Florida had on us. Why can't it happen in reverse?"

Notes Both Richard Zednik (concussion) and Sergei Gonchar (headaches) worked out yesterday, and Wilson said he has hopes the defenseman will be ready to play tomorrow in Philadelphia or Saturday vs. New Jersey.

"[Gonchar] said he felt pretty good," Wilson said. "Gonch rode the bike [yesterday], and he might practice [today]. Zednik went out and skated. Although I wouldn't call it a great success, but he was on the ice. We'll see how he feels [today] and take it from there."

Wilson dressed an extra defenseman last night in case one of the three up from Portland, Maine, in the American Hockey League wasn't up to the task. Besides Gonchar, Joe Reekie (bruised foot) couldn't go.

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