- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. One player said it was a very ugly victory. Somebody else said the team that lost was the one that deserved to win.

Washington defeated Buffalo last night 2-1 to stay two points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division race. The Lightning beat the New York Islanders to keep pace with the Caps and play Detroit tonight while Washington has the night off.

The Caps got a pair of goals from Jeff Halpern and some outstanding goaltending from Olie Kolzig to win for the fourth time in their last five games. Kolzig has now allowed six goals in his last five and is playing some of the best hockey of his career.

Nonetheless, not all the Caps matched the intensity of a few who carried the game to the Sabres.

"It was a frustrating game, certainly," coach Bruce Cassidy said. "We had some guys who really battled hard tonight and some guys who never got off the bus. Fortunately, we won the game, and at this time of the year you take the two points any way you can get them.

"At the same time, Buffalo deserved to win the game. It's too bad for them and fortunate for us, but maybe that's the way their year has gone. So we'll get out of here, take the two points and get ready for Atlanta [tomorrow night at home]."

The first line, with left wing Kip Miller out with an injury, was virtually invisible. Jaromir Jagr had an excuse; he has come down with the flu, something that has been bothering him the past three games. He hasn't practiced in days and was uncertain if he will be ready for the Thrashers.

With the team's best offensive line ineffective, it was up to others to pick up the slack.

"Halpern's line was out there on the power play because the [Robert] Lang unit didn't want to work for second pucks the first four or five power plays," Cassidy said. "Buffalo was aggressive and they did some good things, but it's not like we haven't seen aggressive kills before. We just didn't want to outwork them, didn't want to go to the net. They just looked disinterested, and that's a credit to Buffalo's penalty-killers."

It was the first time in 121 games, since March 28, 2001, that Halpern has had a two-goal game, and for Washington the timing was perfect. Buffalo had pulled even a little more than two minutes earlier, and the Caps seemed drained, almost unmotivated despite the stakes.

But the Sabres' Jean-Pierre Dumont, who played with some of the current Caps in the minor leagues, came to Washington's rescue. He took an ill-advised elbowing penalty 2:02 after Ales Kotalik tied the game and Washington was on a power play.

But at the time, that didn't seem like much of an advantage. Washington came into the game with two goals in its last 42 power-play chances and had gone 0-for-4 in the first period. A power play seemed more like a disadvantage.

Thirty-two seconds after play resumed, however, Halpern got the puck along the right boards and calmly advanced on goalie Martin Biron, who had kept his team in the game. Halpern let go with a wrist shot from the right circle, a shot that didn't have a lot of mustard on it. Maybe that was the secret. Perhaps Biron was expecting something with more fire. In any case, the puck made its way toward the goalie and right through his legs for a 2-1 lead with only 1:14 left in the period.

Halpern struck even later in the first period. After the Caps had taken two shots on four wasted power plays in the first 20 minutes, Halpern got the puck along the left boards down low, near the goal line. He took a shot from a very bad angle and Biron misplayed it, the puck slipping through between his body and right arm.

The Kotalik score came on a Buffalo power play. The right wing was left alone in front of Kolzig, got the puck and the goalie was defenseless. It was the first goal Kolzig had allowed in 99 minutes, 4 seconds.

Midway through the second period, Buffalo complained about the legality of one of Jagr's sticks, officials checked and it was illegal. Jagr was assessed a two-minute minor penalty, the second time since he has been a Cap that he had been caught. He was assessed an unknown penalty by the team for the first infraction and probably will be again.

The only unusual thing about the call was the timing. Teams asking for stick checks normally are teams that are trailing, which the Sabres were, but they usually wait until late in a game where they can turn a one-man advantage into a two-man advantage by lifting their goalie for an extra attacker.

However, the pace of the game at the time coach Lindy Ruff asked for the stick check had slowed to a crawl. The coach may have thought he would wake his team up or catch Washington napping by selecting that time for the check. Had he been wrong, Buffalo would have been assessed a minor for delay of game.

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