- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. It wasn't so long ago that the Washington Capitals were inventing ways to lose games, mired a half-dozen or so games below .500.

The Caps clawed their way back to .500 last night for the first time since Dec. 15. They did it in most convincing fashion in a most unconventional way, using a patchwork defense that included four defensemen who have played in the minors this season, two of them this week.

Washington fell behind (it is the Caps, after all) but rallied (this is also the new Caps) to beat the New Jersey Devils 3-1, Peter Bondra getting credit for two goals and his center, Andrei Nikolishin, getting the third.

With the victory, the Caps achieved a 32-32-10-1 record and finished their longest road trip of the season with a record of 5-3 remarkable considering they lost their first two games.

And the Caps move back solidly into the thick of the playoff hunt, tied with Montreal for the eighth and last spot in the Eastern Conference, each with 75 points, but the Caps holding the first tiebreaker of most victories. Washington has seven games left, five at home; the Canadiens have eight games remaining.

Caps goalkeeper Olie Kolzig was nearly perfect in a game where he had to be more vigilant than perhaps at any other time this season, first keeping his shorthanded team in the game and then protecting a one-goal lead against one of last season's Stanley Cup finalists. He evened his record at 28-28-7 with a 26-save effort.

The game was an excellent display of all the great things about hockey super-charged atmosphere, fiery play going both ways, solid physical play but none of the dirty incidents that have given the sport a bad name in some quarters.

"That was a pretty impressive effort," Caps coach Ron Wilson said. "We asked our forwards to work even harder than they have been, and they've been working hard. I don't know how much you can ask a group of guys to do. We bought ourselves a lot of time and space by doing the job in their end of the rink. One of the keys was to establish our cycle game; the less time spent in our end, the less chances of mistakes.

"The third period, there's no pictures in the standings about how pretty the effort was; it's about getting the job done and being patient, waiting for the right play to develop, and it did."

Patrik Elias took advantage of a Washington turnover to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead halfway through the first period after the Devils put continuous pressure on the Caps for nearly a minute. It was a sequence that was repeated several times during the game but the only one where Kolzig allowed a score.

Nikolishin scored off a pretty setup by Bondra at 14:37, his 13th of the season, which ties his high as a Cap. But the goal gave the Caps all the confidence they needed to battle and win in the Devils' home.

The game-winner, Bondra's 36th goal of the year, came halfway through the third when the wing one-timed a feed from Nikolishin over John Vanbiesbrouck's glove. Nine minutes later, Bondra took off on a breakaway, and the goalie threw his stick at the wing trying to stop a score. The officials awarded Bondra a goal on the play.

"I was just coming from the bench," Bondra said of his eighth game-winner this season, "and I kind of stayed in the slot. He kind of fed me, I hit a one-timer, and luckily it went in."

Said Devils coach Kevin Constantine: "They made good on their one really good scoring chance in the third. They had one good look at a shot, and probably the wrong guy to have a shot is Bondra."

Bondra called it "pretty much a normal road game for us" and added, "We worked hard, we kept coming back to help our defense out and we got lucky, we scored key goals, enough to win the game."

It was the Caps' fifth win in their last six games.

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