- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

SUNRISE, Fla. — All-Star center Robert Lang had been traded and top defenseman Sergei Gonchar was scratched with a supposed stomach bug as the Washington Capitals’ talent attrition continued last night.

The Caps, winless in their past three games and mired in the Southeast Division basement, could have felt sorry for themselves and gone through the motions.

Instead Michael Nylander, in his first game of the season, set up Brian Willsie’s third-period goal, Kip Miller followed with the game-winner, Alexander Semin added insurance and Mike Grier’s empty-netter completed the rally as the Caps stunned the Florida Panthers 4-1.

“It was a real enjoyable game,” said Glen Hanlon, the Caps’ beaming coach. “Everybody just worked. There wasn’t one area that we felt that we weren’t at the top of our game. Michael was so excited about playing. With the addition of [center Dainus Zubrus, back from a four-game absence with a strained chest muscle] and Michael, all of a sudden your team speed is improved. A world-class player like Michael at 80 percent is still better than most of the league. He still shines.”

Washington, down 1-0 after 40 minutes because of Mike Van Ryn’s power-play goal for Florida midway through the second period, had been 0-29-3 when trailing after two periods. The Panthers also were on a 3-0-2 run, led by All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo who had a shutout streak of 182:37 going.

But at 4:47 of the third period, Nylander, who had missed the first 63 games after breaking his right leg in practice Oct.1, passed from the rear boards to Willsie for the one-timer from the left circle that beat Luongo.

“Everything goes faster in games than in practice, so you have get to used to it,” said Nylander, who played 13:54. “I felt OK. My legs could always be quicker. But it was a good start. It was nice to get a good pass like that, and Willsie shot it perfectly. If we stick together like this, we can win lots of games.”

The game-winner came at 11:19. Todd Rohloff fired a shot from the left point that bounced off Luongo to Jeff Halpern, whose carom landed in perfect position for the onrushing Miller to slide the puck into the open right corner ahead of the diving Luongo.

The point was Rohloff’s first in 18 games since being claimed off waivers from Columbus on Jan.9. The goal was the first since Dec.21 for the 34-year-old Miller, who had been a healthy scratch for 10 of the previous 13 games as the Caps looked toward the future.

With NHL scoring leader Lang off to Detroit for a prospect and two draft picks earlier in the day in the Caps’ latest cost-cutting move and Gonchar, the league’s most prolific blue-liner out of the lineup perhaps in advance of a deal with a Stanley Cup contender before the March9 trade deadline, the biggest offensive forces in the Washington lineup were Halpern, Zubrus and Anson Carter with all of 26 points apiece. Even woeful Pittsburgh has two players with at least 34 points.

“We’ve lost a lot of offense, so we know we’re going to have to work extremely hard to win any game the rest of the way,” said Miller, referring to the Lang deal and the earlier trades of goal-scorers Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra. “We’ve got to play well defensively. Tonight, [goalie] Olie [Kolzig] stood on his head for two periods until we could get on the boards. It’s good to help out and feel part of the team.”

The 19-year-old Semin, a healthy scratch in five of the previous 10 games because of his defensive deficiencies, stole the puck behind the Florida net and tucked it underneath Luongo at 16:33 for his first goal since Jan.9. Grier scored with 10 seconds left.

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