- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

The Washington Capitals looked tired Tuesday night in Buffalo, but they had every right to be, having been on the road since March 14. But then again, the Sabres looked exhausted, too, and they had been at home or close to it for a week.

"Whenever you're trying to get a playoff spot, it's draining mentally and that takes a toll on you," said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, trying to explain what was going on. "And with every game so significant, there being so many implications, guys are going to tighten up a little more and things don't go as smoothly.

"I thought we were a little tired at the beginning of the game," he said. "Buffalo came out real quick. We settled down, sat back a little bit, but we found a way to win whether we were tired or not, and that's the bottom line we won."

And because they did, 4-3 after coming back from a two-goal deficit, the Caps find themselves in a virtual tie for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both Washington and Montreal have 73 points, but the Canadiens have a game in hand. However, the Caps hold an even bigger card: the first tiebreaker, with two more victories than Montreal.

This season is winding down in a way that is not familiar to many of the Caps, a thriller to the very end. For the past few years, Washington has had a playoff spot secured for the last month or so, with only position undetermined.

"But this is fun," Kolzig said. "This is just like playoff hockey. You're scoreboard-watching, we're playing well [four victories in the last five games], and it's a great time of the year. It would be tough to be a team like Detroit. Even though they're in, they've still got to get themselves motivated for every game and they clinched [the Western Conference] back around Christmas. This is great because it gets you pumped up, it gets you going."

The goalie said he could remember thinking back during the last few campaigns as to what must be going through the minds of other teams, clubs that were still clawing for a spot with only days remaining like the Caps and Sabres and Montreal. He was thinking about the pressure they must be under.

That pressure exerted itself Tuesday night in Montreal. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was filling out the official lineup card when he wrote down one name, Arron Asham, when he meant to write down the name of his best penalty-killer, Andreas Dackell. Dackell had already played one shift when the error was discovered, and the veteran had to be removed from the game. Florida beat Montreal 2-1 on a late power-play goal.

There was pressure in Buffalo, too, when the Caps fell behind after 70 seconds and then went down by a pair.

"We've been down 2-0 in the past a lot," noted wing Chris Simon, who got the game-winner with 1:58 left, "but it seems we've been able to bounce back and win those games. Back in Columbus [March 23], we had the lead, we sat back, they tied it up and we won it, but I don't know what it's going to take to get it in out heads that we've got to be ready during the first 10 minutes of games, especially on the road. You got a team like Buffalo which is known to come out quick and set a tone, we've got to be more prepared at the start."

On the other hand, there are people like Kolzig who enjoy the pressure part of the job.

"I don't think when you're below the [qualifying] line you enjoy it very much," said coach Ron Wilson. "We have tried to enjoy this as best we can instead of worrying about what everybody has said about us. There isn't a team in the league that always wins when three or four of its best players are [injured]. Look at Toronto, Colorado, every team, and we're no different.

"We ask guys to play every shift like it's their last and our guys, I'm proud of them for not giving up."


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