- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

The Washington Capitals last night played the most dangerous opponent there is one that has nothing to lose, no pressure, nothing to do but play out the season.

Tampa Bay played the Caps tough well into the second period before Washington started converting its breaks and recorded a 4-1 victory before a meager crowd at MCI Center.

The victory put Washington within four points of Carolina, the Southeast Division leader a position that seemed beyond the realm of possibility just a week or so ago. The Hurricanes lost to New Jersey last night while Washington was winning its seventh of its last eight games. The victory was the Caps' fourth in a row, a high for the season.

"[The Hurricanes] don't play until Sunday, so we have an opportunity to tie them and put some pressure on them," Caps coach Ron Wilson said. "What's important is, we've caught Montreal again and until Montreal loses a game, as long as we're winning, we have to hope somebody helps us out. If Montreal were to lose [tonight], then we do control our destiny, and that's all we want to be able to do right now."

The Caps are tied with Montreal for the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, each with 79 points. The NHL will rank the Canadiens higher this morning because the Canadiens reached 79 points in one less game. But Washington owns the all-important first tiebreaker, most wins, with 34 to Montreal's 32.

The game saw the return of high-scoring Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar, out for two weeks with a concussion. He picked up right where he left off, drilling his first shot into the rear of the net to open the scoring.

The Lightning started backup goalie Dieter Kochan, and he alone kept Tampa Bay in the game for two periods. The rookie was replaced by Nikolai Khabibulin to start the third period.

Gonchar's goal came at 14:37 of the first, a backdoor play from the right side instead of the left, where Gonchar normally operates. The defenseman took a pass from Glen Metropolit and ripped it over Kochan's left shoulder for his 24th of the season, three more than his previous high. He now has 56 points, one short of his career high.

"Gonch came back and played well," Wilson said. "I don't know what his final ice time was [a conservative 18:50], but we guarded it. He's not going to kill penalties right now and we didn't have much time on the power play and usually he stays out the whole two minutes."

Tampa Bay caught Washington sleeping at the start of the second period and Brad Richards scored off what appeared to be an easy shot just 16 seconds into the period.

But then the Caps took hold and closed the door. Defenseman Sylvain Cote put Washington back on top at 4:50 when he drilled a 40-footer through Kochan, a clear shot that should have been stopped. It was Cote's first goal in 49 games and third of the season.

The insurance came from Peter Bondra, who scored first and second against Tampa Bay this season after previously collecting 35 in 38 games against the Lightning. The first came in the final minute of the second period with the Caps under heavy pressure. A Washington defender backhanded the puck high into the air and out of the zone to relieve the pressure.

The puck was well behind the Tampa Bay defense, and Kochan should have come out to play it sooner than he did. He ended up in a race for the puck with Bondra, a race he was not going to win. The Caps wing got there first, grabbed the puck and softly put it in the vacant net, his 38th goal of the season. His 39th came in the final two minutes when he hit an empty net.

It was Gonchar's first game since he sustained a concussion March 21 in Toronto when Leaf forward Darcy Tucker tried to drive him into the sixth row without first opening the gate.

Gonchar missed five games and lost the overall scoring lead to Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, but the Cap padded his lead on goal-scoring by defensemen.

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