- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

It took 61 games, but the Washington Capitals finally overcame a deficit of more than one goal to earn a point. NHL points leader Robert Lang scored a fluky goal in the last minute of the second period and Sergei Gonchar blasted a puck home in the third period as the last-place Caps rallied for a 2-2 tie with Florida last night at MCI Center.

“Earlier in the season, being down 2-0, we would have folded our tents and called it a game, but we’re a different team with a different attitude,” Caps goalie Olie Kolzig said. “Regardless of where we are in the standings, we’re not packing it in.”

Indeed, the Caps may be just 19-32-8-2, but their current four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2) is their longest of the season.

Gonchar’s goal, his seventh of the season and second in three games, came four seconds after a power play expired but with the Caps still pressing hard in the offensive zone. Rookie Alexander Semin, who drew the tripping penalty on Florida’s Valeri Bure, passed from behind the net to Lang who sent the puck out to Gonchar at the point for a one-timer that sizzled past All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo at 7:10 of the third period. Gonchar leads NHL defensemen with 48 points.

“You can have a night when the [power play isn’t] executing at a high level and all it takes is an opportunity for Gonchar or Lang and the puck is in,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said after his fifth-ranked power play went 0-for-6.

Washington which was impressive in a 1-1 tie with powerful Ottawa and a 3-1 victory over Stanley Cup champion New Jersey in its past two games, played like a tired team for the first half. The Caps didn’t test Luongo even once during a 24-minute stretch of the first and second periods despite having two power plays. The ugly performance drew a couple of choruses of boos from the home crowd.

Lang’s 28th goal got the fans and the Caps back in the game. The All-Star center took a pass from Matt Pettinger, rushed the net and fired a shot off Florida defenseman Andreas Lilja’s right skate and past Luongo with 28.3 seconds left in the second period.

Lang, who leads the NHL with 70 points, could join Calgary’s Jarome Iginla (2002), Los Angeles’ Wayne Gretzky (1994) and Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux (1988) as the only players in the last 55 years to be the league’s top scorer for a non-playoff team.

“They outworked us the whole second period, but we had to be reasonably optimistic after Langer’s goal,” right wing Mike Grier said. “That lucky bounce was what we needed. We played extremely hard in the third period.”

Washington outshot Florida 14-3 in that period and had the best scoring chance of overtime, but Lang took Grier’s pretty feed and fired over the net with Luongo down. The Caps are winless in 10 overtime games (0-2-8) and slipped to 0-1-2-1 against the Panthers compared to 8-2-1 against fellow Southeast Division rivals Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay.

After a scoreless first period that included just 12 shots, Mike Van Ryn put Florida on top at 1:45 of the second. Niklas Hagman, whose hit separated Gonchar’s left shoulder in the teams’ last meeting Jan.23, dug the puck out of the left corner of the Washington zone and passed to Byron Ritchie in the left circle. Ritchie quickly fed Van Ryn in the high slot for a low backhand that seemingly sailed through the legs of the Caps’ Joel Kwiatkowski before beating Kolzig to the far post at 1:45 of the second period.

The Panthers doubled their pleasure at 5:22. Olli Jokinen shot the puck behind the net. Huselius skated out from behind untouched and shoveled a backhand between Kolzig and the left post.

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