- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

SUNRISE, Fla. — It wasn’t exactly no Jaromir Jagr, no problem, but minus their injured superstar the Washington Capitals rallied from a quick deficit on goals by Bates Battaglia and Peter Bondra before settling for a 2-2 tie with the Florida Panthers last night.

Playing without Jagr for the first time this year, Washington improved to 10-19-2-1 overall and 2-1-1 under new coach Glen Hanlon, who replaced Bruce Cassidy last Wednesday.

A top team official expects Jagr, who lost his left thumbnail when slashed during the first period of Tuesday’s 5-0 victory in Atlanta, to miss a week. With 28 points in his last 20 games, Jagr had been playing the best hockey of his three years in Washington.

“We miss Jags,” Hanlon said. “Our offense certainly isn’t the same without him.”

Nonetheless, the Caps have scored seven goals in five-plus periods — two by Bondra — without Jagr after averaging 2.6 goals during their first 30 games.

“I’m not trying to step it up because Jags is hurt,” said Bondra, who had hit the right post on a power play in the first period. “If you try to do too much, that’s when you won’t score. You’re going to have ups and downs during the season. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the team. We played hard for 60 minutes tonight, and we got a point.”

With the tie, last-place Washington (23 points) closed within three points of Carolina (26) and remained five behind Florida (28) in the Southeast Division. The Caps are 5-2-1-1 in division play after their league-high 20th road game. Washington, which has had only 12 home games, plays its next five at MCI Center.

The Caps got another boost from rookie goalie Maxime Ouellet, who stoned the Thrashers 5-0 in his first Washington start and played what Hanlon termed “a solid NHL game” last night with 20 saves after being surprised by Valeri Bure’s shot 6:20 into the action.

Florida hadn’t tested Ouellet until Andreas Lilja’s floater from the left point at 6:08. But when Lukas Krajicek intercepted Joel Kwiatkowski’s clearing attempt, the puck skipped to Olli Jokinen, who immediately rifled it to Bure lurking on the goal line near the right boards. Seeing the traffic in front, Bure threw the puck on the net, and it somehow slid between Ouellet’s legs.

“It’s a shot I should have had, but I just missed it,” said the 22-year-old Ouellet, whom Hanlon stuck with in favor of seventh-year starter Olie Kolzig because of his fantastic 37-save effort the previous night. “The good thing is that my teammates stayed cool.”

Ouellet bounced back from the bad break on Bure’s shot to rob Lilja on a one-timer from the left circle at 14:20 and Marcus Nilson on a rebound of another Lilja blast 39 seconds later. Ouellet came up big again on the first good scoring chance of the second period off Viktor Kozlov’s stick at 3:15. Rookie Boyd Gordon, goal-less in his last 28 games, had Washington’s best opportunity of the period at 11:25, but Robert Luongo thwarted his wraparound attempt. When Florida turned the play the other way, Ouellet smartly stymied Matt Cullen. At 14:01, Gordon had an open left side of the net but his weak shot went outside of the post.

The Caps were 52 seconds away from going to the third period trailing, something they haven’t recovered from to win in 19 tries this year when Jason Doig’s shot rebounded to Brian Willsie, who tossed it goalward. Battaglia outmuscled Mathieu Biron to the puck and knocked it past Luongo. The goal was the second for Battaglia in Hanlon’s short tenure after he failed to score in 14 games for Cassidy.

Given new life, the Caps went ahead 4:03 into the third period. Matt Pettinger grabbed a loose puck at center ice and skated toward the net, drawing Biron and Luongo to him before feeding across the slot to Bondra for the easy goal into the open net. Bondra’s 13th goal was his eighth in 13 games and his 28th in 43 career games against the Panthers. The goal came on Washington’s only shot of the period.

However, the lead didn’t last long. Rookie Steve Eminger’s holding penalty gave the Panthers their first power play at 7:41, and 30 seconds later, Stephen Weiss fended off Doig to redirect Mike Van Ryn’s shot from the point past Ouellet. Cullen came very close to winning the game for Florida in the final seconds of regulation.

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