- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

The Buffalo Sabres, believing that their all-world goalie Dominik Hasek wasn't playing very well, started rookie standout Martin Biron in goal yesterday against the Washington Capitals at MCI Center.

The change didn't make much of a difference to Washington because its goalie, Olie Kolzig, did a passable Hasek impersonation and stopped the Sabres in their tracks to lead the Capitals to a 2-1 win. Washington continued its post-Christmas rampage through the NHL.

Rookie Jeff Halpern scored early and veteran Calle Johansson, a former Sabre, scored late to give Kolzig the margin he needed. The goalie turned aside all but the last of the 29 shots he faced. The Sabres scored in the final seconds during a 6-on-5 rush in front of the Caps' net. Stu Barnes got credit for poking a shot into the right corner of the crease.

The Caps, once as low as 13th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, are now one of five clubs in the East with 80 or more points. They are tied with Florida, at 80 points, for the Southeast Division lead. The Panthers, however, continue to lead the division with one more win than Washington. Both teams have played 66 games.

"It's incredible," said coach Ron Wilson of his team's rise through the standings. In early January he had termed Florida, then up by 14 points (the lead was once as high as 16) on the Caps, uncatchable. The two teams meet tomorrow night at MCI Center.

"We're tied for first [in the division] and tied for second in the conference. It's amazing. We're eight points behind New Jersey so what the heck, New Jersey's struggling right now, maybe in a week we're battling for first place when they come," Wilson said.

The Caps play host to the Devils Saturday.

Yesterday's matinee victory did not come without a price, possibly a significant price.

Washington lost defenseman Sergei Gonchar during his first shift with what may turn out to be a concussion. They also lost defenseman Dmitri Mironov in the third period with possibly an aggravation of a tailbone injury suffered earlier in the game. And Johansson missed several shifts after suffering a body bruise when he used his body to stop a slap shot. However, he returned in time to score the winner.

Halpern scored 13 minutes into the first period after Ulf Dahlen dumped the puck into the left corner. Steve Konowalchuk dug it out and centered toward the slot. Halpern was covered but got just enough of his stick on the puck to redirect it past Biron.

After that it was up to the Caps defense to protect the slim lead. Washington did that but there were a few times when it got a little hairy.

Kolzig's biggest save of the season may have come at 11:16 of the third when Vaclav Varada's drive got through the goalie and started trickling toward the goal line. Kolzig looked over his shoulder, spotted the puck, twirled and swept it aside with his stick just before it reached the goal line.

"Varada got all his weight behind it and basically I just slowed it down," Kolzig said. "It was trickling and luckily I've got long arms. I reached back and cleared it."

Johansson, set up by Chris Simon's feed, scored on a breakaway with 1:51 left. He swept in on Biron, controlled a rolling puck and then looked up to see the goalie going down low. Biron's early commitment gave Johansson an open left side which the defenseman had no trouble hitting. It was his 15th game-winner as a Cap.

Note Washington is 22-5-6 since Christmas, picking up 50 of 66 points, a percentage of .758. The club is 12-1-3 at home since that time and 17-4-3 against the East. This is the first time since the 1991-92 season that Washington has been 13 games over .500.

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