- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

The Washington Capitals solidified their hold on first place in the Southeast Division last night but nearly gave goalie Olie Kolzig a heart attack in the process.

Washington dominated Buffalo for the first two periods before the defense fell apart in the third and all the good work was almost wasted. But the Caps held on for a 3-2 victory at MCI Center, and in the end that was all that mattered.

"We make it interesting," Kolzig said sarcastically after the game, his 25th victory of the season. "We go from playing probably the best defensive period we had all year [the second] to just running around, losing coverage … I don't know, I don't know what we were thinking in the third period. I thought we addressed this before let's put teams away, let's not give them any life."

But Washington did. The Caps turned a dominating, one-sided performance into a tight game with sloppy, lackluster play that might have forced the game into overtime had not Kolzig played as well as he did.

"We've got some defensemen who all of a sudden forgot what their assignments were," said coach Bruce Cassidy, agreeing with his goalie and strongly suggesting that changes would take place along the blue line. "It's puzzling when you've got a bit of competition back there, I think some guys got comfortable. So shame on us for not pecking away at them, because they made some mistakes that are inexcusable not clearing the front of the net, turning pucks over. But we'll fix that."

The way people were talking after the game, it sounded almost like the Caps had tied or lost. But Washington was thoroughly in command for the first 40 minutes and would have led by a larger margin but for some excellent goaltending by the Sabres' Martin Biron.

As it was, the Caps built their Southeast Division lead back to three points over idle Tampa Bay and face a major test Saturday against the Devils in New Jersey. Washington has now won two in a row after losing three straight and finished its longest homestand of the season at 2-2.

Perhaps the problem was that the opposition last night was dead last in the Eastern Conference, a troubled team fighting for its very survival on more than one front. There was also the ease with which Washington stormed out in front.

Jaromir Jagr got his 34th of the season five minutes into the game when he brought the puck down low, almost to the goal line, before ripping a no-angle shot behind the goalie.

Fifteen minutes into the first, Brendan Witt scored what might be the prettiest goal of his career when he was trapped deep, the puck came to him and he closed in on Biron. He came across the crease and casually lofted a backhander into the top right corner, only the 16th goal in his eight-year NHL career.

Peter Bondra made it 3-0 almost 15 minutes into the second on a power play, only the second such goal the Caps have scored in 11 games. Bondra came in on a backdoor play orchestrated by Kip Miller, took a pass on the fly and Biron was helpless. It was the first time since Jan. 10-11 that Bondra has scored in back-to-back games.

Witt's contributions rarely have come from offense throughout his career. Even in junior hockey, when his skills were superior to most of those playing at his level, his best season was 1993-94 with Seattle in the Western Hockey League, when he had eight goals and 39 points. That same season he also had 235 penalty minutes, which illustrates what aspect of hockey he was concentrating on.

Nonetheless, he shared the goal-scoring lead with Jeff Halpern for Washington during the Caps' last playoff appearance two seasons ago against Pittsburgh, both scoring twice. That clearly illustrates how weak the Washington attack was that postseason.

Before last night, Witt's last goal came 11 months ago, on March 26, during a 4-3 victory in Buffalo. He had gone 65 games without a goal but Saturday night recorded his career-high eighth assist of the season, helping set up Sergei Gonchar's goal for Washington's only score of the night.

Meanwhile, Robert Lang's assist on Jagr's goal gave him a five-game point streak, 1-5-6. He got to 50 points this season against Montreal on Monday night, the fourth straight season he has reached that plateau. Jagr, Gonchar and Michael Nylander reached the 50-point plateau earlier this season for Washington.


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