- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Whatever was ailing the Capitals for a couple of weeks, they seem to have found an antibiotic for it. They rallied to beat Tampa Bay on the road Saturday snapping one of the more gruesome five-game losing streaks in recent memory and they killed Carolina, 7-0, last night to all but eliminate the Hurricanes from the Southeast Division race.

The way they were whizzing around the ice, beating the opposition to the puck at every turn, you wouldn't have guessed they had recently been playing like the Worst Team in the History of Hockey. But then, the Caps are famous for their fainting spells, for suddenly forgetting en masse who they are and what makes them a good team in the first place.

These exercises in group hysteria often happen after the Capitals have gone through a stretch where they've scored a bunch of goals and start thinking they're the Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito Boston Bruins. That was clearly the case in this instance. They had just steamrolled the Penguins (twice), the Islanders, the Rangers and the Senators, averaging nearly five goals in the five victories, and, well, stuff like that can go to your head. Especially when you come back from a 5-2 deficit against Ottawa in the third period to win in regulation.

You wouldn't think the Caps would be prone to identity crises, being a veteran club and having played in pretty much the same style for years and years. You'd think they would have come to terms with their status as a loveable group of grinders. But, hey, every hockey player dreams of being Mario Lemieux until something like a five-game losing streak snaps him out of it.

Ron Wilson can only hope the storm has passed, that his team has finally come to its senses with the playoffs just six games away. The Capitals certainly seemed serious about the task at hand last night. It took Jeff Halpern a mere 1:28 to score on Arturs Irbe (just their second first-period goal in the last seven games), and the second period was ridiculous Ulf Dahlen, Andre Nikolishin, Calle Johansson and Trevor Linden all got goals to make it 5-0.

Now if the Caps can just resist the temptation to think of themselves as the Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier Oilers.

"It can work either way," Olie Kolzig said. "We can get overconfident [again], or we can build on it. The way things have gone the last few weeks, I think we're going to build on it. We're looking at these [back-to-back] games [against the Hurricanes] as kind of a mini-playoff series. We just did to them what the Penguins did to us in the first game [of the playoffs] last year, and now we'll go to Carolina and see what happens there."

Johansson's and Linden's goals were the most heartening Calle's because he was honored before the game for playing in his 1,000 NHL contest and deserved the memento, Linden's because he hadn't scored since coming over from Montreal and needed to remind everybody why George McPhee traded for him. Johansson has been a rock on this club for 12 seasons, but since he doesn't put up the offensive numbers of, say, Sergei Gonchar, his contributions have never been fully appreciated. Here's the best thing about him: At 34, he's playing as well as ever. He looks like he could be around another five years.

As for Linden, he's beginning to show signs of settling in as the second-line center. It's funny that the Capitals' recent swoon coincided with the trading deadline deal for Trevor and Dainius Zubrus. It suggested some kind of cause and effect. Chemistry is a delicate business in sports, and it was only natural to wonder if McPhee might have over-tinkered by making a trade when the Caps were the hottest team in the league.

But I still like the trade a lot and think the club is the better for it. McPhee would have been crazy to stand pat with Buffalo adding Donald Audette and Steve Heinze, Ottawa bringing in Mike Sillinger and the Devils, Flyers and Penguins being the Devils, Flyers and Penguins. Particularly after the Caps had been knocked out in the first round last year.

"I think a lot of things around here are blown out of proportion," Ron Wilson said of the Capitals' recent troubles. "It's frustrating. Maryland loses a 10-point lead against Duke in the last minute, and it's like, 'The season's over. Let's string up the coach.' And look where Maryland is now in the Final Four. We lose a few games, and you sense the same feeling."

By decapitating Carolina, 7-0 in a game with plenty riding on it the Caps proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're the best team in their division. Now they have to decide how much farther they want to take it.

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