- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Michael Nylander was on top of Pittsburgh goalie Sebastien Caron, so close that he knew he couldn't get a shot off and time was a factor.

So Nylander tapped the puck behind him where he thought teammate Kip Miller, the former Penguin, should be. Miller, who has the nerves of a pickpocket, calmly righted the puck and drilled it toward the goalie.

It was the goal the Caps desperately needed and resulted in a 2-1 victory, which kept them three points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division at the All-Star break.

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"I don't think he could spin around and shoot it like he wanted to so he laid it back," Miller said. "I got lucky, the puck had eyes and found its way in. … I was just putting it on net. I think it went under his legs."

Thus the Caps enter the three-day break five games above .500 (24-19-7-3) and in command of their own destiny. Their first game back is Tuesday night in Tampa, and that result should say a lot about the way the race turns out.

Washington did not play a particularly hard game in the first 30 minutes, turning it on only occasionally. It was a factor that nearly cost them.

"I think everyone in the organization was frustrated after the first period," said coach Bruce Cassidy. "From the way it looked at ice level, the want was in the guys' eyes, we just weren't doing what we needed to do to be successful. Against Pittsburgh you got to play down low against them because our forwards can have their way with the defensemen a lot of nights. They've got some forwards who lose their discipline in their own end and want to get going.

"We didn't make good decisions, we didn't get the puck deep when we had the opportunities, we were off-side, it just seems we were a half to a second off."

The one thing the Caps did have going for them early in the game was penalty-killing, and last night there was little that was more important. Pittsburgh came into the game with the top-rated power play in the league, hitting 22.7 percent of the time overall, and first in the league on the road at 24.1 percent.

Against it was a Caps penalty-killing unit that has ranked as low as 29th in the 30-team league this season but was currently 26th overall and 21st at home. Statistically, it was definitely a Pittsburgh advantage.

Washington shut down the Penguins both times it was shorthanded in the first period, allowing four shots, and did the same thing in the second period, getting outshot 4-1.

On the other side of the equation, the Penguins' so-so penalty-killers were perfect against Washington, throwing the Caps off their recent pace that saw them score 12 power play goals in their previous six games before last night. Washington was outshot and outplayed by a wide margin in its first attempt, and also failed to do anything with its only chance in the second period.

The Penguins took the lead 12:38 into the first when defenseman Michal Rozsival came in from the right side and beat Olie Kolzig to the far left side.

Washington tied the game in the first 90 seconds of the second period. With Kip Miller and Michael Nylander mucking and grinding around the cage, Sergei Gonchar sneaked down the left side of the slot, slowly biding his time. Miller spotted the All-Star defenseman and whipped a pass in his direction. Gonchar one-timed the pass and got his 13th of the season which keeps him in the scoring lead among defensemen and in the process gave the rookie Pittsburgh goalie a lesson in backdoor scoring.

Meanwhile, at least one Cap was willing to lay body on the line repeatedly for the team. Ten minutes into the first, Brendan Witt took a slapshot from Milan Kraft off the right leg and limped to the bench, only to return later. And with just seconds to go in the period, Alexi Kovalev bounced a wrist shot off the right side of Witt's helmet, leaving the defenseman prone on the ice for several minutes. He was back for the start of the second period.

A guy who didn't play at all was star center and owner Mario Lemieux, who missed the 10th of his club's last 11 games with a groin strain. The injury will also keep Lemieux out of Sunday's All-Star event although he will be in the area of the game entertaining team sponsors.

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