- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

ATLANTA — When star right wing Jaromir Jagr strained a groin four weeks ago in Buffalo, Washington turned a one-goal lead into a blowout defeat. But after Jagr went out midway through the scoreless first period last night at Philips Arena after a slash seared off the fingernail from his left thumb, linemates Robert Lang and Kip Miller stepped up their play to produce a surprising 5-0 victory over the Southeast Division-leading Atlanta Thrashers.

While Lang (tying a career-high with four) and Miller (two) combined for six points, rookie goalie Maxime Ouellet sparkled in his Washington debut. He stopped all 37 Atlanta shots, including 24 while constantly under siege in the second period. Ouellet played so well that he might get the nod again tonight at Florida even though veteran Olie Kolzig was slated to play.

“I was less nervous than I thought I would be, but I [faced] two shots in the first minute and that really helped me out to get into the game,” said the 22-year-old Ouellet, who had played two games for Philadelphia in 2000-2001 before getting traded to Washington with three draft picks for Adam Oates the following March. “[In the second period], when it happens, you don’t have time to think, you just react and sometimes that’s better.”

The victory improved the last-place Caps to 10-19-1-1 overall, 2-1 against Atlanta and 2-1 for coach Glen Hanlon, who took over when Bruce Cassidy was fired a week ago today.

“I’m happy for Max, who showed a lot of composure and never seemed to panic out there, but I’m more happy for the group that’s been here and battled,” Hanlon said.

With Brian Willsie filling in for Jagr on the top line, Lang took matters into his own hands. Lang, who has 40 points and has scored in all but four games, threaded the needle cross-ice to Miller. He immediately sent the puck to Willsie at the left post and from there Willsie had no problem lifting his second goal as a Cap past Atlanta goalie Byron Dafoe at 12:36 of the first period.

Less than a minute after a slashing penalty on Andy Sutton gave the Caps their second power play at 18:17, Lang backhanded the puck to Dainius Zubrus. His pass across the goalmouth caromed off Atlanta’s Garnet Exelby to Miller at the right post for the goal. Miller’s second two-point game of the year gave him 12 points in his last 18 games.

“Everybody’s rejuvenated [since the coaching change] and every time you get the first couple of goals, it’s much easier,” Lang said. “For me, it’s really nice when you have the confidence that you’re going to get the points.”

Ouellet, who had a 1.35 goals-against average in two preseason games with the Caps and a 2.39 goals-against in 21 games for Portland of the American Hockey League before being recalled Monday, faced just four shots in the opening 20 minutes.

The second period was very different, but the Beaufort, Quebec, native was up to every challenge. He thwarted Shawn McEachern’s rocket at 3:16, a backhand from the slot by Serge Aubin and McEachern’s rebound at 5:51. The shots, 14-4 after the first period, were suddenly 14-10.

With the Thrashers buzzing after the Caps’ Matt Pettinger lost his stick in his own zone, Ouellet came up big again even as a slap shot by Frantisek Kaberle gave Atlanta a 17-16 edge in shots.

But when the Caps finally got a good scoring chance at 12:11, Lang didn’t misfire. Defenseman Rick Berry jumped on a loose puck in the neutral zone, setting up Lang for a breakaway which he finished with a shot past Dafoe’s glove for the 3-0 lead.

Atlanta kept the pressure on with the three-goal deficit. Consecutive penalties on Sergei Gonchar left the Caps shorthanded at 16:06 and 19:11, but the Thrashers — easily leading the Eastern Conference with 98 goals — still couldn’t find the net.

However, Lang could, scoring his second of the night and 17th of the year on a feed from Bates Battaglia at 1:34 of the third period for the sixth four-point game of his 10-year career. Peter Bondra closed out the scoring with his 12th goal on the power play at 14:57.

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