- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

How well did opening night go for the Washington Capitals?

Leading scorers Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr combined for three goals.

Rookie center Boyd Gordon picked up an assist on his first shift.

Defenseman John Gruden scored his first goal in 82 NHL games dating to 1994.

And the Caps outshot the visiting New York Islanders by better than a 2-1 margin.

All those positives added up to a 6-1 romp over their favorite patsies before a very happy MCI Center crowd of 15,791.

Jagr’s shot past the right arm of Islanders goalie Garth Snow 2:04 into the game after one of his trademark dipsy-doodle moves made the five-time NHL scoring champion 3-for-3 at scoring in season openers since coming to Washington in a 2001 trade with Pittsburgh.

“It’s always important to win the first game, especially at home, and it always helps when you have the lead,” Jagr said. “We had the lead right away, and that gave everybody confidence.”

Not that the Caps needed any extra confidence against the Islanders, who fell to 0-11-2 at MCI after being badly outplayed and outshot 37-18.

A little more than four minutes after Jagr’s goal, a pair of Washington newcomers teamed to give the Caps a 2-0 advantage.

Right wing Brian Willsie, acquired off waivers from Colorado last Friday, was working behind the New York net when he dug the puck out and threw it in front. Gruden, a 33-year-old journeyman who hadn’t played in the NHL in more than three years, pounced on the puck and fired a 30-foot rocket past Snow.

Gruden is the oldest player to score his first NHL goal since 37-year-old Helmut Balderis tallied for Minnesota in 1989.

“I was glad to find out that I wasn’t the oldest ever,” Gruden said, beaming. “Before the game, my [3-year-old] son Jonathan said, ‘Daddy, score a goal.’ I laughed about that. I can’t ask for a better story. I never would have thunk it.”

The two-goal lead didn’t last long. On a seemingly harmless clearing attempt, the Islanders’ Mariusz Czerkawski grabbed the puck off the half-board to the right of Olie Kolzig and threw it back on net, where it somehow eluded the usually reliable Washington goalie at 7:17 of the period. Kolzig redeemed himself a little less than seven minutes later, diving to prevent Oleg Kvasha’s shot from tying the game.

The Caps then held the Islanders’ power play without a shot even though top penalty-killer Brendan Witt was in the box for roughing. And when Washington gained its second power play 1:36 after the teams had returned to even strength, Willsie set up the goal that made it 3-1.

Willsie, who had eight assists in 69 games in parts of three seasons with the Avalanche, passed from behind the net to Sergei Gonchar at the left point. Gonchar slid the puck across to Bondra, who one-timed a blast past Snow at 19:07.

Washington pushed the margin to 4-1 after 90 seconds of the second period as left wing Mike Grier finally was rewarded for his hard work down low. Grier, who had been stoned by Snow a couple of times in the first period, took a couple of swats at the puck in the slot, and the second found the net before he was flattened by New York’s Sean Bergenheim with 10 seconds left on Washington’s third power play.

“You’re always excited when things work, and they worked tonight,” said second-year Caps coach Bruce Cassidy, who got goals from each of his power play units and whose penalty-killers handled all three of their shorthanded situations.

“[Bondra] has to get the puck shooting on the power play,” Cassidy continued. “That’s what he does best. We got away from it last year. And I was glad to see Mike get a goal. He was pressing there in the first period, but he gets one the old-fashioned way. That was the most excited I was all night when he scored.”

If that wasn’t enough to drive first-year Islanders coach Steve Stirling crazy, Bondra jumped on the ice as the extra skater for what would have been another Washington power play and beat Snow with a backhand at 4:14 of the period after Dainius Zubrus and Robert Lang had kept the puck alive.

Stirling called time, but the respite didn’t stem the tide. Two minutes, 10 seconds later, defenseman Jason Doig threw the puck netward. It was redirected by Halpern’s stick and trickled past the partially screened Snow for a 6-1 lead. That was all for Snow, who was replaced by Rick DiPietro. Snow fell to 2-6-2 lifetime against the Caps.

Note — The six goals tied a Caps record for a season opener and were their most in 32 regular-season games dating to a 7-2 pounding of the New York Rangers on Jan.26. Washington scored six goals in beating Tampa Bay in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

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