- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson might have found a piece of the puzzle that seems to have been missing for much of the season. Don't dress the usual complement of players six defensemen and 12 forwards do something different and see if that works.

Yesterday Wilson dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen so he could, in his words, have a little fun playing mix-and-match. It was the New York Islanders who had trouble matching and the Caps converted the mixing into a 3-2 victory.

The win extended the longest current unbeaten streak in the NHL to 21 games (18-0-3) since the Islanders' last win over the Caps, March of 1997. The streak is the longest in Caps history.

Goalie Olie Kolzig got the win with 33 saves, including four during a two-man disadvantage for 1:42 late in the first period which might have turned the game in the other direction had the Islanders been able to score.

"The 5-on-3 in the first period was huge, it set the tone for us," Kolzig said. "The guys did a great job, that gave us a lot of confidence. [Adam] Oates won a few key draws and then the defense did a great job of clearing out the rebounds. That's what you need to build some momentum in a game."

Sergei Gonchar (his 14th goal), Andrei Nikolishin (eighth) and Jeff Halpern (fourth) scored for the Caps with only one failure as a unit, when Jason Blake skated through and around most of the Caps on the ice to tie the game a minute and a half after Gonchar's power play drive had given Washington the lead. The second Islander goal came late in the third when Michael Peca was left unguarded briefly and he sliced a long shot over Kolzig's shoulder.

"We had great penalty-killing, particularly that 5-on-3, that was huge," said Wilson. "There was no score at the time and a team like that that's been licking it's wounds can use a 5-on-3 to get a 1-0 lead and go from there. Then we got our 5-on-3 and made it count."

The difference in the game was special teams. The Islanders came into the building with the second best road power play in the league but the Washington defense would not let it get set up the way it wanted. New York had 10 shots while on its five power plays but nothing got through. On the other hand, Washington scored on two of its five chances.

It was a game in which players not usually in the limelight like Dainius Zubrus and Nikolishin stood out, constantly involved, forcing the visitors to retreat or at least pay a price for handling the puck.

"I think you notice [Zubrus] more now because of what we were missing when he wasn't in the lineup," Wilson said. "He's a lot more valuable to the team than we thought. It's not always about scoring points, although he's had a few, it's about competing and being strong on the puck, winning battles and forechecking and being good defensively. He's all that."

The primary reason Wilson said he went with seven defensemen was because he wasn't sure how Brendan Witt, nursing a badly bruised hand, would do. Witt did fine, allowing Wilson to juggle the defense and forwards to fit whatever situations developed.

"I wasn't going to make any assumptions and since we haven't been using the fourth line very much those guys were only getting a few minutes a game seven defensemen might be the way to go right now," the coach said. "That gives you the opportunity to use Jaromir Jagr or Peter Bondra or Oates a little bit more. Then I get to have some fun, too, mixing lines up. I like doing that, seeing what works over the course of a game."

Halpern scored what turned out to be the winner as time expired in the second, hammering the puck off the back of goalie Garth Snow's pads. It was his first score in 12 games.

"It's been a struggle for our team lately so it's nice to at least start off the new year on the right foot," Halpern said. "We have a tough month ahead of us and hopefully we can go from here."

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