- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

If you're looking for a positive spin this morning, the Washington Capitals extended their lead over idle Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division to three points last night.
If you want a more realistic outlook, should the Caps lose the Southeast Division title by a point, they can look back to last night's game against Atlanta as the one that got away or back to Dec.1 when they flat-out lost to the Thrashers.
Washington scored the tying goal with less than three minutes left in regulation to salvage a 4-4 overtime tie with the rapidly improving Thrashers at MCI Center in a game the Caps once led 3-1.
Tampa Bay now trails the Caps by three points in the race for the division title, but the Lightning have two games in hand. They play one of them tonight against Colorado at home.
"We missed our assignments, and we gave the game away with our mistakes," Caps defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We've got to have more determination. We've got to understand we're not going to win games 5-4 we've got to win them 2-1. We've got to realize when we have a 3-1 lead, we've got to bear down. We've got to play smart, and we've got to learn that pretty soon. The season is almost over."
Jaromir Jagr scored twice and Jeff Halpern once to propel the Caps into a 3-1 lead early in the second period, and that would have been a 4-1 lead but for one that was called back. After that, Ivan Ciernik got the only goal for Washington, and that came with 2:57 left in regulation.
"It's a team we need to beat, obviously, but at the same time we got the point and we go on from here," said goalie Olie Kolzig, who had allowed just six goals total in his five previous games. But he had adequate support in those contests, support that was missing last night.
Coach Bruce Cassidy disputed the theory that the big early lead worked against the Caps, that some of the intensity was gone after the officials ruled Mike Grier's goal had entered the cage after the net was dislodged from its moorings.
"I thought we earned everything we got, and I thought we earned the fourth goal, too," he said. "I don't agree with the call, and it might have had an outcome in the game, but we still should have been able to hang on and put it away."
The go-ahead goal for Atlanta, which has never won at MCI, came with Washington's top defensive pair Johansson and Brendan Witt on the ice with the first line, Jagr, Ciernik and Robert Lang. Three of the five appeared to be late coming back into the defensive zone, so late that Lubos Bartecko could have retaped his stick and grabbed some lunch while lining up the shot that beat Kolzig four minutes into the third period.
Even more impressive for the Thrashers was the performance of goalie Pasi Nurminen, just back from injured reserve. Once he settled down and his defense reacted properly, he kept Atlanta in the game, facing a total of 37 shots and bringing his record to .500 (14-14-3) for a recent expansion team.
But the Caps have to look at themselves for the answers. The goal that tied the game 3-3 came from Dany Heatley on a power play. Washington's power-play unit, meanwhile, continued to struggle, going 0-for-4 to run its performance over the past 15 games to 3-for-52, or just 5.8 percent.
Maybe the Caps were jinxed from the start. A center named Dan Snyder assisted on two of the Atlanta goals.
Notes Refusing to reveal a player's injuries is one thing, but this may be carrying it a bit too far. Referee Scott Zelkin started the game last night but did not return after the first period "due to an undisclosed illness." Please. …
Caps defenseman Ken Klee, who has been concentrating on staying at home more this season, nonetheless has bettered his career assist mark with 15. … The Caps are 13-4-1 this season against other teams in the Southeast Division with one division game remaining April 1 against Florida. Since the division was formed in 1998-99, the Caps are 59-21-12-1. …
Tampa Bay opens a three-game home stand tonight against Colorado. Next comes Buffalo, followed by Los Angeles.


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