- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

A little more than a minute into the second period Saturday night in Tampa, Fla., with the Washington Capitals already down a pair, Lightning penalty -killer Fredrik Modin stripped Sergei Gonchar of the puck and faced goalie Craig Billington on a short-handed breakaway.

Modin, who will represent Sweden in the Olympics, is Tampa Bay's leading goal-scorer. He already had scored his 31st of the year earlier in the game and had the Caps over the proverbial barrel. Another goal could be curtains for the Caps, sending them to a sixth straight loss and continuing the ruination of a once promising season.

But Billington made the stop, and the game remained 2-0. Brendan Witt, Peter Bondra and Steve Konowalchuk later scored to make it 3-2 Washington at the end.

"That was a huge stop, just huge," assistant coach Tim Army said yesterday. "But he had been doing that, making the stops that kept the game 2-0. It's like I said, when we're all on the same page, we're a good team and hard to play against."

There will be arguments that a close win over Carolina or either of the two wins over Pittsburgh or the three-goal comeback against Ottawa are better candidates for the Caps' game of the year, but Saturday night in Tampa has to rule as the favorite.

Washington entered the game with a five-game losing streak. Its 15-point lead over the Hurricanes in the Southeast Division was down to seven, and it fell behind the Lightning 2-0 in the first three minutes. Coach Ron Wilson spent the day preaching that the team had to win the first period or at least come out even.

That didn't happen, but the Caps fell back on what they had been taught, what they had bought into individually and collectively Wilson's system. And that did work.

"We won because we didn't deviate from what we believe in," said Witt, who contributed offensively, defensively and with his fists, standing up for his teammates when it was needed.

"The reason we're atop our division and have 88 points is when we play to our strengths, we're effective," Army said. "And we proved that [Saturday] night. We played emotionally but intelligently and with composure. Our guys realize we need to play a certain way in order to be successful. Sometimes when you have a lot of success things begin to slip because of that, it cycles out and often times you can go through a real rough stretch."

What the Caps didn't do in Tampa was panic. The game plan was in place, it was followed and eventually the Caps won.

"Now we have to get better and build off that," Army said. "We had a big win, but we can't afford another flat game like we've had before."

This is a critical week for the Caps. They lead Carolina in the Southeast by nine and face the Hurricanes twice, Wednesday at home and Friday in Raleigh. The Caps' magic number to win their second straight division title is eight any combination of eight points gained by Washington or lost by Carolina, and the Caps get home-ice advantage in the first round.

Before last night's games, Washington's magic number to clinch a playoff spot was four (not two as incorrectly reported here yesterday), with Boston the only team still alive in the Eastern Conference that was not already seeded.

"We can't worry about that stuff," Army said. "We have to concentrate on what we can control. When we do the little things and do them right, we have the opportunity to win the game every night. Coming into Wednesday, we need to be prepared and have the same focus and everything will take care of itself."

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