- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

The Washington Capitals finally got to first place in the Southeast Division, but it wasn't the way they had planned.

The Caps played considerably less than a 60-minute game last night as the Columbus Blue Jackets took advantage and escaped with a 2-2 overtime tie. It was the ninth straight game in which the Caps got at least one point.

Each team had numerous chances to win, and both goalies Marc Denis for Columbus and Sebastien Charpentier for the Caps were very solid when they had to be.

But it was Washington's lack of concentration at critical times that prevented it from grabbing another point with a victory. As it was, the Caps picked up a point with the tie, giving both Washington and Tampa Bay 42 points and a tie for first place. The league would say the Lightning hold the top spot based on having played one less game, but the Caps have the edge in wins (18-17), the first tiebreaker.

Sergei Gonchar scored both Washington goals, continuing his improved play this season.

Washington killed all seven Blue Jackets power plays and scored on one of its own but could not fully recover from a shorthanded goal Columbus scored when it appeared most of the Caps on the ice fell asleep.

"It just seemed like we needed somebody to get us going, and it never happened," Caps coach Bruce Cassidy said. "All of a sudden, they get one [shorthanded] on a poor defensive zone effort and now we're behind the eight-ball having to kill two penalties coming out of the second period. But I think that was the key; our penalty-killing is coming around. Trying to come back from 3-1 is a heckuva lot different than 2-1 so that gave us something to build on and we were pretty good after that.

"But we definitely had our chances to score, and in the end so did they. Charpy was pretty good when he needed to be, late, and [Denis] was the difference in the third."

Gonchar opened the scoring for the night at 7:27 of the first after a flurry in front of Denis. He finally got a rebound and slipped a backhander through a throng for his seventh.

Columbus evened the score 10 minutes later on a very bad play by the Caps. Jaromir Jagr turned the puck over at the blue line, and the Blue Jackets broke in on a 3-on-1 shorthanded, with Ray Whitney taking a second pass and drilling it behind Charpentier. It was Columbus' ninth shorthanded score of the season.

Columbus went ahead in the closing minutes of the second period with some of the Caps standing around watching. Charpentier went down trying to glove a rebound, but David Vyborny lifted the second chance over the goalie into the net to put the visitors up 2-1.

There was some initial dispute over who scored the game-tying goal, but it was finally awarded to Gonchar, coming at 10:28 of the third. He ripped a shot through a gang in front of Denis, and the puck flew back out of the cage. It appeared to be a rebound, and Robert Lang sliced that back in to make sure. It was later ruled Gonchar's goal, giving him three in the last two games.

Reviews of the video tape showed that the puck flew into the cage just under the crossbar and flew back out so fast that it was missed by the goal judge and the on-ice officials.

Notes Playing even strength, Columbus had been outscored by 26 goals, so how does a team like that stay remotely in contention? Special teams. Before yesterday's action, the Blue Jackets were rated No.1 league-wide in special teams, first in penalty-killing at 88.4 percent and eighth on the power play at 18.4 percent. Combined, the club had outscored the competition aby 13 goals on special teams and had outscored the competition 8-3 shorthanded.

Realizing that Columbus would have very little offensive firepower of its own for at least a half-dozen years, general manager Doug MacLean hired a coach solidly grounded in basics and hard work, Dave King.

The Caps were being outscored by 17 on special teams; they were plus-3 at even strength. Washington is at Madison Square Garden tonight to play the New York Rangers, who have been off for three days trying to get some of their small corps of wounded healthy.

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