- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

The odds looked bad for the Washington Capitals last night at MCI Center.

The Caps suffered their worst loss of the season in Buffalo the day before. They were facing the NHL’s stingiest team without two of their five serious offensive threats. And their opponents, the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, were well-rested, while the Caps were playing their third game in four days.

To make matters worse, the Devils had eight power plays, including a pair of 5-on-3s, to two for the Caps. And yet Washington, on goals from unexpected sources Mike Grier and Joel Kwiatkowski, forged a spirited 2-2 tie before a delighted crowd of 15,005.

“[The 7-1 loss to the Sabres] left a sick feeling in all of our stomachs, so it showed a lot for us to bounce back and play a gutty game against one of the best teams in the league,” Grier said.

Kwiatkowski’s goal was the biggest. The Caps led 1-0 more than halfway through the game but had fallen behind in the final five minutes of the second period on power-play goals by Grant Marshall and Sergei Brylin. The Devils, 13-1-2 when leading after two periods, seemed like sure winners.

But Scott Gomez’s interference with goalie Olie Kolzig gave Washington its second power play. Jeff Halpern passed from behind the goal line to Robert Lang in the left circle. Lang forwarded the puck to Sergei Gonchar, who fired a shot. The rebound bounced to the right circle, where Kwiatkowski was in perfect position to smack his fourth goal past Devils goalie Martin Brodeur at 4:01 of the third period.

Kolzig, who had 34 saves in his best game in weeks, preserved the tie with a point-blank stop on Scott Niedermayer with 1:56 left in overtime.

“It was a great team effort,” said coach Glen Hanlon, whose 11-23-4-1 Caps snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 3-5-3 since he replaced Bruce Cassidy on Dec.10. “Our goalie was sensational, but the rest of the group played just as well, and that’s what you have to do against the champions. We played a gritty, physical, in your face style of hockey. Coming back against that team is as hard as any team in the league.”

Minus Dainius Zubrus, out an estimated two to four weeks with a broken right foot suffered while blocking a shot against the Sabres, and Peter Bondra, who pulled a groin during Tuesday’s practice and should return soon, the Caps were without two players who produced 42 percent of their goals and 29 percent of their points. That should have been a killer for a team that had scored once in each of its previous three games, had six players in the lineup who had spent time in the minors this season and was facing the Devils.

“It was tough, especially in the penalty-kill department, but Olie played really well,” Kwiatkowski said. “With him back there, it makes it a lot easier.”

When Brendan Witt went to the penalty box for high-sticking at 7:46 of the first period and Rick Berry followed with a similar infraction at 9:05, Washington — led by Kwiatkowski, Jason Doig and Boyd Gordon — killed both penalties, including 41 seconds when New Jersey was skating 5-on-3.

Not long after the teams returned to even strength, Halpern forced a turnover by David Hale at center ice. Grier, whose frustration over not getting a call in Buffalo and not scoring since opening night had boiled over with a double minor penalty that led to two Sabres’ goals, jumped on the puck. On a pretty give-and-go with linemate Bates Battaglia and only Brian Rafalski back, Grier finally ended his 36-game drought, deking Brodeur down and easily depositing the puck between his legs at 13:02.

“It’s frustrating when your team’s not winning and you’re not scoring,” said Grier, who averaged 16 goals the past six seasons. Hopefully I can get the monkey off my back and start to chip in a little bit.”

When Gonchar went off at 6:15 of the second period for cross-checking and Doig followed suit by tripping Gomez 1:01 later, the Caps were down two men again. However, led by Halpern and Trent Whitfield, the 23rd-ranked penalty-killing unit rose up again, skating off the 5-on-3 and both calls while allowing two shots to get through to Kolzig.

However, at 12:36, Brian Sutherby was given a double minor for high-sticking Gomez. The Caps killed the first half, but the Devils’ seventh power play came through. Niedermayer kept the puck in and threw it toward the net. It caromed off bodies in front to Marshall, who buried a one-timer from the slot at 15:08. And when Halpern went off at 19:43, it took the Devils six seconds to take the lead. Brylin won an offensive zone faceoff with Whitfield and then drove the net to redirect Brian Rafalski’s shot through Kolzig’s legs.

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