- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Good starts had been crucial in the Washington Capitals turning an ugly October into a respectable November and December. So when the Caps got off to a slow start last night in New Jersey, they figured to be in serious trouble.

And they were.

The Devils got early goals from rookie defensemen Paul Martin and light-scoring forward Turner Stevenson in an embarrassingly easy 3-0 victory that ended the Caps’ first winning streak at two games and snapped the Stanley Cup defending champions’ four-game winless skid.

“We weren’t effective anywhere,” Caps coach Bruce Cassidy lamented. “When you’re being outplayed the way we were going into the third period and down [just] 2-0, you would think you would recognize that there’s an opportunity to steal a point. It’s almost like we gave into the fact that it was too difficult an opposition to fight back against. That’s the most disappointing thing.”

Two much longer streaks also were halted. Caps center Robert Lang, whose 16-game tear (11 goals, 14 assists) had made him the NHL’s leading scorer, fell a game short of tying Hall of Famer Mike Gartner’s franchise-record streak. Lang’s linemate, Jaromir Jagr, also failed to score after producing six goals and 14 assists in the previous 12 games.

While the Devils fired 41 shots on Washington goalie Olie Kolzig, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur barely had to work in dealing Washington its first shutout since March23. It also was his NHL-high fifth of the season.

The Caps’ nine shots were only two more than the team-record low in 1978, when the fourth-year Washington franchise was still an NHL laughingstock. Six of Brodeur’s 69 shutouts, the most by an active goalie, have come against the Caps.

Coming off solid road victories against lowly Columbus and the struggling New York Islanders, Washington failed in its attempt to win a third straight away from home for the first time since March 2002.

The team heads to Los Angeles tomorrow and Colorado on Monday. Because the Kings and Avalanche both have winning records, the Caps figure to be in for a rough ride out west. Last night’s loss dropped Washington to 3-14-1 against teams at .500 or better this season compared with 5-2-0-1 against their fellow losers.

The Caps (8-16-1-1) came in 2-11-1 when they allowed the first goal, and that record got bleaker last night.

New Jersey’s Tommy Albelin forced a turnover behind his own net and tossed the puck ahead to Patrik Elias, who kept the play going. Igor Larionov, who turned 43 on Wednesday, raced into the Washington zone and dropped a pass for Martin, who blasted his second career goal from the left circle past Kolzig 2:25 into the action.

“When you play a patient team like the Devils, you can’t afford turnovers,” Caps defenseman Brendan Witt said. “And when they get up two goals, they sit back and make it even tougher on you.”

That’s what happened at 9:10 of the period. After an impotent Washington power play ended shotless four seconds early because Jagr was caught holding the stick of New Jersey’s Brian Rafalski, Eric Rasmussen won a faceoff in the Caps’ zone, drawing the puck back to Martin. The 22-year-old fired a one-timer that Stevenson, battling Brendan Witt in front, deflected between Kolzig and the left post.

Since the Caps haven’t overcome a two-goal deficit all year, their defeat already seemed a sure thing. They didn’t even put a shot on Brodeur until the 16:23 mark of the first period — and it was a weak wraparound by Mike Grier, who hasn’t scored since the opening night victory over the New York Islanders on Oct.9. Grier’s shot was Washington’s only one of the period, tying a team record low.

Elias almost raised the margin to 3-0 at 6:19 of the second period after a pretty move through traffic, but Kolzig thwarted him with a butterfly save.

The Caps lost Ivan Ciernik on New Jersey’s next rush as the left wing injured a foot when diving to block a shot. The Caps then survived a double roughing minor to Rick Berry at 9:40 thanks in part to a charging penalty on Rasmussen at 11:09 that left the teams skating 4-on-4 for two minutes.

New Jersey outshot Washington 19-4 in the period without adding to its lead. But at 5:30 of the third period, Rasmussen won another offensive zone draw. Stevenson jumped on the puck and redirected it to Jeff Friesen. When defenseman Jason Doig was late getting over, Friesen put the puck past the helpless Kolzig.

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