The Washington Capitals might have lost the battle Thursday night and also might have won the war.
Although the Caps lost to Pittsburgh 4-3 in overtime at MCI Center, they picked up one point just enough to move into first place in the Eastern Conference ahead of New Jersey on the basis of tiebreakers.
Defenseman Hans Jonsson blasted just his third goal of the season past Olie Kolzig 2:25 into the extra period as Pittsburgh enhanced its grasp on seventh place in the conference.
The Caps and Devils are tied with 97 points apiece in the conference, and both have 42 wins. But Washington has the key tiebreaker, a 3-1 advantage in head-to-head competition, and also a better conference record, to take first.
Josef Beranek had broken a 2-2 tie that existed from the first period with a power-play goal at 10:40 of the third period the Penguins’ third power play score of the game against one of the game’s best penalty-killing units. He jammed in a loose puck at the left corner of the cage to put Pittsburgh into the lead.
Chris Simon, however, moved the Caps back into a tie at 13:52 with a blistering shot that froze goalie Ron Tugnutt in his tracks. Simon’s 29th of the season ripped into the far side from the right circle.
Washington held a 1-0 lead for more than 10 minutes of the opening period until suddenly everybody wanted to score and three players actually did.
Rookie Jeff Halpern put Washington in front 5:18 after the first faceoff when he poked a loose puck past former Caps goalie Tugnutt. Halpern had been knocked to his knees by a crosscheck administered by defenseman Bob Boughner and was sliding toward the goal when he reached out with his stick and poked the pass from Ulf Dahlen past the goalie.
Halpern, with five games left, is starting to climb into the higher ranks among Washington rookies who have performed well. His goal was his 17th, moving him into a tie for ninth place with Hartland Monahan (1975) and Richard Zednik (1997). He now has 27 points, which ties him with Dmitri Khristich (1990) and Bill Riley (1976) for 19th place.
That was it for about 10 minutes until three goals were scored in less than two minutes.
Alexei Kovalev got the first for Pittsburgh at 15:16, converting off a power play with Halpern in the penalty box. Kovalev unloaded a slap shot from the right point that nicked something en route, changing direction slightly and zipping in over Kolzig’s catching glove.
It took only 43 seconds for Washington to go back in front on a play very similar to the Caps’ first score. This time there was another puck lying unattended in the crease, and Tugnutt couldn’t get to it because he inadvertently had been pushed deep into the cage by one of his own players. Richard Zednik got there before the Penguins could clear it and snapped it in off Tyler Wright.
The new Washington lead lasted just 64 seconds or until Pittsburgh went on its next power play, this time after Joe Murphy took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when Zednik scored the go-ahead goal. Kolzig had made a strong stop on a hard shot by Straka, but the rebound was left hanging. Robert Lang was there to poke it past the goalie before the Caps could clear, an uncharacteristic miscue of late on Washington’s part.
Notes Andrei Nikolishin was a late scratch for the Caps, his abdominal strain bothering him a little more than usual. He probably could have played, but there was no point in taking a chance that he might aggravate the injury.
Glen Metropolit dropped off the first line as right wing to center Nikolishin’s unit; Peter Bondra moved from the fourth to first line as right wing and Jim McKenzie came off the bench to take up position on the fourth line. That left defenseman Dmitri Mironov and center Mike Eagles as healthy scratches.