Wednesday, January 5, 2000

They don’t celebrate Christmas for another two days over in Russia, so defenseman Sergei Gonchar will count what happened last night as an early gift or three.

Gonchar, who has turned slow starts into an art form, recorded his first career hat trick last night and assisted on another goal as the Washington Capitals finally had a laugher, beating the injury-riddled and undermanned Montreal Canadiens 6-1 before an announced crowd of 10,155.

“I’ve been expecting those goals for a long time,” a relieved Gonchar said. “Hopefully they’ll break through and they’ll come a little bit more often now. Christmas is in a couple days, so it’s a nice present.”

It was the most goals the Caps have scored in a game this season and more goals than they have scored in many back-to-back games. They finally had a cushion with which to work, and they didn’t relax and allow Montreal to get back into the contest.

Not everything went the Caps’ way, however. All-Star right wing Peter Bondra left the game after just one shift in the second period with what he and the team described as an aggravation of the injury to his left knee. The knee was operated on Dec. 5 to repair a slight tear in the meniscus.

“I just aggravated it a little bit,” Bondra said, noting that the game already appeared to be under control when he skated for the last time. “I think basically we’re going day-by-day. We’ll look at tomorrow as another day. I hope to be back playing the next game.”

Washington plays three straight against Atlanta, which may or may not be good news. The expansion team rallied to beat Buffalo 5-4 last night for its ninth win of the season, guaranteeing it will finish with more wins than the Caps did in their initial season.

Gonchar’s season had been pretty much of a write-off until last night, with just three goals in 31 games after scoring 21 last season in 53 games, including 13 on the power play. But Gonchar always has been a late starter, and perhaps he was waiting for the Russian Christmas.

The goals were vintage Gonchar on excellent setups by his teammates. His first, off a nice Bondra fee, was a rising slap shot into the top corner over goalie Jeff Hackett’s shoulder. The second goal was a patented backdoor move from Andrei Nikolishin (goal and two assists) and the third was a rocket from center ice to complete his hat trick midway through the middle period.

“The last couple games I’ve had more confidence in myself, so I’ve been jumping in a little more often, and that’s why I created those chances and scored those goals,” he said. “I’ve got to give credit to my partners; they gave me good passes ahead of time. That third goal, the goalie didn’t even expect me to shoot.”

Jeff Toms got the game-winner eight minutes into the first period, and Chris Simon, playing one of his most complete games of the season, had the other Washington score off a feed from Adam Oates. Ulf Dahlen, who had 18 minutes of ice time in taking his own shift and filling in for Bondra, assisted on two goals and was plus-4 defensively.

“It wasn’t quite what I expected because both teams play tight defense,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We got to them in the second period and basically put it to them.”

Montreal coach Alain Vigneault was more blunt.

“We played a solid first period and went brain dead after that… . It’s inexcusable what happened. Considering the importance of the game for both teams, it was not good,” he said.

The Canadiens did nothing to help Hackett in the second and third periods, a fact even Kolzig could not avoid.

“His guys deserted him,” he said.

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