- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

A few weeks ago, the Washington Capitals were talking about taking baby steps on the path back to the playoffs. If the current trend is any indication, those baby steps have turned into a full-fledged walk and the pace is quickening.
The Caps last night completed a two-game sweep of Tampa Bay, this time 3-1, running their unbeaten streak to four games (3-0-1) and matching their season high. All of this comes after Washington had lost four in a row, a few of them embarrassingly badly.
More important, Washington enters the Olympic break with its confidence light years ahead of where it was just a week ago. The Caps have moved from 12th to 10th place in the Eastern Conference, are five points behind the eighth-place team for the last playoff spot and have closed within eight of Southeast Conference leader Carolina with two games in hand.
"It's like night and day compared to the last break we went into," said wing Ulf Dahlen, referring to the All-Star break when the Caps had fallen six games under .500. "We almost got all the points we could get, we feel good about ourselves and we're getting [Steve Konowalchuk] back after the Olympics and we can smell the playoffs again."
After the All-Star Game, coach Ron Wilson had challenged the team to win all four games between the two breaks, and it almost did. The Caps gave up a goal on a bad bounce against Minnesota with less than three minutes left to settle for a 3-3 tie but won the other three games.
Washington is still three games under .500 (23-26-9-1), but at least there is more hope than Tampa Bay was left with. The Lightning started the home-and-home series four points behind the Caps and hoping to move into a tie. Instead, they fell eight points behind with the final quarter of the season approaching.
"We are very pleased," Wilson said. "It has given us that feeling of hope and maybe a little insecurity down south [referring to the Hurricanes]."
Craig Billington filled in superbly for ailing goalie Olie Kolzig, evening his record at 4-4-3. He gave up a weak goal to Tampa Bay in the first two minutes "I just missed it, that's all" but more than made up for that with some outstanding stops when the Caps were hanging onto a one-goal advantage late in the contest.
Sergei Gonchar, Adam Oates and Jaromir Jagr provided the necessary offense in the second period, the first two scoring just 19 seconds apart and then assisting on each other's scores, Jagr earning first assists in both cases. Colin Forbes got the insurance goal late in the third, his fourth goal in his 16 games as a Cap.
"Seven out of eight, that's pretty good," said Jagr, whose play has improved significantly lately. At one point in the middle period, he picked up the puck in front of his own net and stickhandled through the five Tampa Bay skaters, bringing the MCI Center crowd to life.
"Now we have some guys coming back from injury after the Olympic break, and we should play the same way we played tonight,"Jagr added. "We have [23] games left. We are eight [points] behind Carolina. It's wide open. I know a lot of people did not believe us, but I said that it is not over until it is over, and we are back in the race."
A guy named Yogi Berra said it first, but who's to argue?


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