- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

NEW YORK With just more than seven minutes to go in Thursday night's game, the Washington Capitals led the desperate New York Rangers by a goal. Then Andrei Nikolishin was called for tripping, and suddenly it was the Caps who were desperate, hanging on in the closing minutes of a road game in a tight playoff drive.

It was not a game the Caps were going to lose. All the things that have made the Rangers so beatable this season resurfaced: sloppy passing, poor defense, lack of offense, porous goaltending. And the things that have made the Caps so good mainly, patience and a strong, opportunistic defense also came to the surface.

Rookie Jeff Halpern scored two shorthanded goals within four minutes as Washington soared to a 4-1 victory, moving the 1994 Stanley Cup winners another step closer to playoff elimination.

But not the Caps, who have played better than any other team since Christmas. The victory, coupled with Ottawa's 3-2 defeat of Toronto, let the Caps take over second place in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind front-runner New Jersey.

Washington also maintained its four-point advantage over Florida in the Southeast Division race, important because home ice advantage for the first round is determined by division winners.

Halpern was not the only rookie to stand out, nor the only Cap. Glen Metropolit, the 25-year-old who had been isolated in the International League for the past five seasons, set up two goals with brilliant feeds, giving him seven assists in the six games since he was recalled from Portland, Maine.

"We were just coming in to do our job, play our game and see what they could do," coach Ron Wilson said of the game and how it transpired. "Then you make adjustments as the game goes along."

Actually, it was not as strong a game as the Caps usually play a possible reflection of how well the Rangers played in phases as they struggle to keep their very faint playoff hopes alive. New York was trying to run the Caps off the ice in the middle period before Adam Oates scored the game-winner, and that set the highest-paid team in NHL history ($61 million) back somewhat.

"We said a while ago, when we were nine points back, that we set our sights on New Jersey," Wilson said when it was pointed out how far the Caps had come. "Now we've gotten within three. Obviously they're worried, with the way things have happened in New Jersey. We just have to continue to play our game and get points."

Wilson was referring to the Devils' firing of coach Robbie Ftorek and naming assistant Larry Robinson to replace him yesterday. It was a development that shook hockey to its core and clearly illustrated the importance of winning in postseason. The Devils are 5-10-2 in their last 17 and have lost two recent games by a combined 10-0.

Chris Simon put Washington up eight minutes into the game with a laser shot from the left side and nearly put Washington ahead by a pair but was foiled four minutes later. The goal was Simon's 28th; his previous high for a season was 16 five years ago.

Mike York tied it for New York on a power play before Oates scored the winner. That set up Halpern's heroics at the end, with great feeds from Joe Sacco and Calle Johansson.

Notes Caps defenseman Joe Reekie was a scratch again Thursday night with a bruised foot. It is the fifth game he has missed out of the last nine. He missed two in early March, played in four but apparently aggravated the injury and has missed three in a row.

Rob Zettler, up on emergency recall from Portland, Maine, has been filling in but will have to be returned once Reekie and the other usual five defenders are all healthy. Teams are allowed only four recalls once the trading deadline arrives and rosters are finalized, and Washington has already used one in bringing Metropolit up from the Pirates… .

The Caps charter out Friday afternoon for Ottawa and practice late in the afternoon at the Ottawa Senators' rink in Kanata, a 40-minute drive from downtown. Washington plays Ottawa Saturday night and then is off until Tuesday, when Atlanta is at MCI Center.

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