- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Happy holidays. The Washington Capitals got back to the .500 mark last night (16-16-3) to move within three points of Southeast Division leaders Tampa Bay and Carolina. A few weeks ago, that didn't seem possible, but a continued improvement in the team's play has brought it back into the thick of the playoff race.
The Caps converted twice at even strength and scored into an empty net at the end in a solid 3-0 victory over Tampa Bay, the division front-runner for most of the season. It was Washington's 11th straight win over the Lightning at home, a streak dating to Nov.4,1998.
The Caps got goals from Steve Konowalchuk early in the first period and Robert Lang early in the second, more than enough for goalie Olie Kolzig, who extended his current unbeaten streak to four games (3-0-1). The team also is unbeaten in four straight, its longest run this season.
"Three weeks ago, the team seemed to be in a position where we didn't seem to know which direction we were going," coach Bruce Cassidy said. "We were three games below .500 and embarking on a road trip, we had an owner who wasn't happy with the team, we had a coach and general manager and players everyone was a little frustrated with what was happening.
"We went out west and spent some time together, I know it wasn't a great trip points-wise [three]. We seemed to come together as a team, play a little better, and we've carried that over since. Again tonight, we played a good team, a first-place club, and they played pretty well. They threw whatever they had at us late in the game, we withstood it and obviously Olie earned his paycheck tonight [40 saves], but so did a lot of other guys. It was a great team effort."
But some things weren't so rosy. The power play continued to be an absolute dud it was 0-for-4 last night which leaves it 0-for-25 in its last five games, 2-for-50 in its last 11. And while the penalty-killers are improving (they killed all six Tampa Bay chances last night), the team continues to take inopportune penalties that leave it at risk and last night compounded the issue by taking a pair of bench penalties.
Konowalchuk's linemates, Mike Grier and Jeff Halpern, also had a hand in the initial goal of the game. Grier got the puck down low on the right side and paused while Konowalchuk went to the front of the crease. He apparently doesn't command too much respect from the Tampa Bay players because he found himself alone with goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. He cradled the pass from Grier, set the puck right on the ice, and lifted it into the vacant side at 5:24, his eighth goal of the season.
Lang simply had more patience than the Lightning's players, and it cost Khabubilin. Lang took a pass from Brian Sutherby and ambled into the zone. Defenseman Cory Sarich went down to block what he knew was coming and slide across the ice, opening space for Lang. The center advanced a few more steps and lifted a shot over the goalie's left shoulder 6:21 into the second period. It was Lang's ninth of the season.
Peter Bondra scored into an empty net with 17 seconds remaining, his 39th career goal against Tampa Bay and 14th of the season.
Notes Defenseman J.F. Fortin returned from his conditioning assignment with Portland but was a healthy scratch last night, along with center Glen Metropolit and left wing Andreas Salomonsson. Right wing Stephen Peat, who has been out with a broken hand since Nov.9, has been practicing for a week and is about ready to come off injured reserve. When he does, somebody has to be moved off the current active roster.
Left wing Dave Andreychuk, who was supposed to miss a month to six weeks when he broke a toe Dec.3, was back in the lineup for Tampa Bay. The veteran got back on skates for the first time Saturday. The entire NHL will be idle today and tomorrow. The Caps return to the ice for practice at 2 p.m. Thursday.

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