- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

There have been times this season when it appeared the Washington Capitals didn't know what was at stake every time they dropped another notch in the standings. Even worse, there have been times when it seemed like the Caps didn't much care.
That was not the case yesterday. Washington lost 5-4 to the Thrashers in Atlanta the Caps' eighth defeat in their last nine road games. But effort, unseen in other recent games, was present. What was also present were some unkind bounces and a few human errors that caused the loss, as opposed to a wholesale lack of team effort.
"We actually played a decent game, at least for what we're trying to accomplish," said coach Bruce Cassidy. "We didn't give up much and that was our goal. We just made some bad decisions with the puck, some individual mistakes."
That may be, but it was also another loss and by the time the Caps buy into the system Cassidy is trying to install, there might not be much left to the season.
With just more than a minute left, defenseman Brendan Witt tried to pass across the ice from the left boards. He passed straight to Atlanta veteran Tony Hrkac on the red line and he started in. Hrkac had to beat Witt's partner, Calle Johansson, but the sure-footed and steady Swede fell as he tried to better position himself between the skater and Olie Kolzig. The goalie didn't leave much but Hrkac took what was there, breaking a 4-4 tie.
"It was a stupid turnover and I shouldn't have done it, especially with a minute left," said a crestfallen Witt. "That's not like me and it cost us. If I had put it off the boards, they don't make the play and we most likely get a point. It's my fault we lost."
Had the situation been a little closer to normal, Witt might not have made the costly pass. But Washington is fighting to right a foundering ship and the defense had gone down to two pairs from three, leaving those remaining a little tired.
"I think it just caught up to them," Cassidy said. "And Calle fell down when was the last time you saw that?"
Another factor in yesterday's mix is that Atlanta might just be starting to turn the corner. It had veteran (and former Cap) Byron Dafoe in goal for the third time and is 7-6-1 in its last 14 games. The breaks that came the Thrashers' way were mostly earned through hard work, just as Washington's effort kept it in the game throughout.
Dainius Zubrus, who left the game after the first period when he aggravated a hand injury, put the Caps up 9 minutes in and Mike Grier tied the score at 2-2 late in the first period. Rookie Mark Hartigan, playing just his second game, put Atlanta in front with the only goal of the second period.
An exciting third period erased two plodding earlier periods and it appeared Jaromir Jagr would win the game by himself. Sergei Gonchar scored 11:35 into the third and Jagr scored three minutes later on a great individual effort. He continued to dominate play and it seemed it would be only a matter of time before he bailed his team out.
But time ran out shortly after Hrkac scored.
"It was one of our better games of the year in terms of structure," Cassidy said. "We didn't spend a lot of time in our end, we got the puck deep, we just goofed up a couple times. They weren't the odd-man rushes but they were all very preventable goals. We self-destructed but we were resilient.
"We came back from deficits and that's tough to do on the road. I'm not going to say we played a great game but we were certainly better than we have been of late."


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