- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2001

Something has happened to the Capitals this season, though I'm not sure what. The faces are the same, largely, but they're doing things we haven't seen them do before. They're going undefeated on the West Coast. They're blowing leads in the third period and winning anyway. They're scoring goals four and five at a time.

And then there's the stunt they pulled last night against the Ottawa Senators. I don't know how you'd classify this one. The Caps seemed so hopelessly behind after two periods, trailing the conference-leading Ottawa Senators 5-2, that Ron Wilson pulled Olie Kolzig rather than subject him to any more abuse.

It's probably the most unsubtle motivational tactic in the book, but it worked like a dream. With Corey Hirsch, the rent-a-goalie from Portland, between the pipes and the rest of the squad playing as if it were skating on thin ice the Capitals reeled off four straight goals to steal both the game (6-5) and two points from the Senators. When have the Caps ever staged a comeback like that against a quality opponent, in a game so fraught with playoff implications?

I'll answer the question for you: Never.

After a game like this, you begin to wonder if this might not be the year for the Capitals. Better still, the Capitals begin to wonder if this might not be the year for them. That might be the last psychological hurdle for them, to truly believe they're capable of going all the way. They went to the finals in '98 and finished with the second-best record in the conference last season, but "I don't think we thought we were as good as we were last year," Wilson said. "Now, though, I think we realize that, hey, we can't be 'lucky' this long. We have to be fairly legit.

"It's confidence, plain and simple. We're not just happy to be a team that's hot."

They also have a couple of veterans, Peter Bondra and Adam Oates, playing like young pups. Bondra got his 41st goal of the season late in the second period a score that presaged the Great Awakening in the third and Oates set up Sergei Gonchar and Steve Konowalchuk for the last two goals, giving him a league-leading (at 38!) 62 assists.

"Anytime Oatsie's got the puck, I'm gonna go to the net," said Konowalchuk, who slipped the puck past shell-shocked Patrick Lalime for his 20th of the year, the second-highest total of his career. "Either [the pass is] going to be on my tape or somebody else is going to have a chance to score."

It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of this win. In these last few months of the season, the Capitals seem intent on removing any mental blocks that might impede their progress in the playoffs. The back-to-back victories over the Penguins recently laid the Pittsburgh Bugaboo to rest, and the 5-0-1 trip out West, particularly the victory at Colorado, will help the Caps' state of mind should they reach the finals again (especially since they got swept the last time). As for yesterday's rally, well, that will make them feel like they're never out of a game, not even when they're down three goals with less than 14 minutes left. You can't put a price on that.

"The key is to win 'em every different way," said Kono. "We've shown a couple of times now that we can come out flat and still come back and win. You don't like to win 'em that way, but it's good to know you can."

This is a new experience for these Capitals. They haven't had this kind of firepower before. In the past, they've been a team of grinders, a team that, once it got a lead, would try to suffocate you with defense and great goaltending. If they were ahead going into the last period, the game was pretty much over. They were that comeback-proof.

But now their games are like Hersheypark rides the kind that have you covering your eyes at the end. Against the Penguins last Wednesday, they frittered away a two-goal advantage and somehow skated off with a victory. Against the Rangers two days later, they did the same. I don't know how Wilson can take it. He either has the perfect disposition for a coach, or he knows a very good pharmacist.

Yesterday, Hirsch got to see the magic for himself from inside the maelstrom. When he first went on the ice, he was just looking at it as a chance to get some playing time with the big club. But then Andre Nikolishin and Trent Whitfield scored, the MCI Center crowd getting louder by the minute, and "I'd keep pinching myself," Hirsch said. "Is this really happening?"

It is, indeed, Corey. It is indeed.


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