- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2002

This has been an unusual season for Washington Capitals forward Dainius Zubrus. First, he missed all of training camp in a contract dispute, then bounced around from line to line when he finally made it into the lineup. Then he went the first 20 games of the season without a goal.
Zubrus returned to the lineup last night after missing 12 games with a hand injury and had a goal and an assist to lead the Caps to a 4-3 victory over stubborn Buffalo, giving Washington a record of 18-16-3-1 heading into 2003.
The Caps now have 40 points, moving them just two points behind idle Tampa Bay, the Southeast Division leader. Washington now has points in its last seven games (5-0-1-1).
The opponent may only have been Buffalo, a team trying to deal with huge off-ice problems, but the Sabres continue to play Washington very tough every time the teams meet. Buffalo came from behind in the final 3:11 to beat the Caps in an earlier meeting this season.
Zubrus, Mike Grier, Jaromir Jagr and Ivan Ciernik scored for Washington while goalie Olie Kolzig got the victory despite almost being lulled to sleep several times due to a lack of play in his end.
But it was Zubrus' play that seemed to spark the Caps. He was playing on fresh legs (he hadn't played since Dec.1) but had been working out daily since the surgery to repair a hand that had been bothering him for a season.
"I got a lucky bounce and the goal went in," Zubrus said of his score early in the first period, a goal that gave the rest of the team some jump. "It was a deflection off somebody's stick. It makes you feel good. It gives you a little bit of confidence, plus [coach Bruce Cassidy] told me exactly how it was going to be. I'd start on the fourth line and he'd increase my ice time after he sees how I feel. I felt good and it seems like the last 40 minutes we played very well."
That's also the way Cassidy saw it.
"I thought we had a very poor first period and we addressed it between periods," Cassidy said. "After that, I thought the last 40 minutes was perhaps our best defensive structured hockey we've played in a long time. I don't think we gave up four, five chances."
It was 2-2 entering the third but Jagr put Washington up to stay with his 18th off the rebound of a Michael Nylander shot. Then Ciernik put a dribbler through Martin Biron at 11:36 and that turned out to be the winner.
Zubrus wasted little time in getting back to scoring. He came over the boards on his first shift since Dec.1, accepted the puck from defenseman Ken Klee and ripped a shot from the top of the left circle at 3:43. Biron was beaten cleanly on a play that was set up by a turnover by left wing Eric Boulton.
Zubrus now has one of the stranger goal-scoring streaks in Caps history. He has scored in the last four games he has played in, but they came yesterday, Dec.1, Nov.26 and Nov.23. Under league rules, it doesn't count as a streak because the goals weren't scored in consecutive team games.
Kolzig proved he was human nearly 15 minutes into the first. Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin took a feed from Caps killer Stu Barnes and came down the right side of the slot. He let what seemed like a harmless backhander go and that's the way Kolzig played it. It ended up behind him to tie the score at 14:52.
Sergei Gonchar, who is having a superior season despite not scoring a ton of goals, drilled a shot toward the goal at 14:30 of the second and it got behind Biron after glancing off Grier for his 10th of the season. Zubrus also assisted on the score.
Ciernik and Jason Doig took overlapping penalties late in the second and that allowed Buffalo to tie the score. The goal came from Miroslav Satan on a slapshot from the right side that deflected off Zubrus.
Notes The league has acknowledged, albeit privately, that the Caps did have a legitimate complaint over New Jersey being awarded a power play in overtime Saturday night. The call resulted in the Devils scoring the winning goal while Washington was a man short. It is the third time this season the league has privately acknowledged that poor calls have probably contributed to three cases where the Caps did not get a victory that they might have otherwise deserved. The Sabres were held shotless for the first 16:29 of the second period. The Caps finish with their best month of the season, 8-4-1-1 in December. In fact, it's their only winning month of the season thus far. Tomorrow's game against Phoenix is a matinee, 3:08 starting time. That may still be too early for some party-goers.

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