- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Chicago Blackhawks made official last night something that had been known for months: The Washington Capitals won’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.

The Caps were mathematically eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff chase as Chicago’s Tuomo Ruutu scored his second goal with less than seven minutes remaining, and the Blackhawks survived being down two skaters late to post a 4-3 victory at MCI Center.

Washington, which lost for the sixth time in seven games, cannot catch the New York Islanders, who hold the conference’s eighth playoff spot. This will be the fourth time in eight seasons the Caps will miss the playoffs after qualifying 14 straight years from 1983 to 1996.

The Caps appeared likely to stave off elimination when Brian Willsie stole the puck from Chicago’s Bryan Berard, skated in and slid the puck through the legs of rookie goalie Adam Munro at 6:48 of the third period to tie the game.

Willsie, one of five Caps claimed off waivers this season, hadn’t scored a point in his last six games before ending the drought with teammate Joel Kwiatkowski in the penalty box.

However, with recent pickup Brad Norton off for roughing, Berard fired a shot from the right point, and Ruutu got to the rebound just before defenseman Brendan Witt and flipped it past Olie Kolzig who slammed his stick on the ice in frustration. After allowing just three goals in three starts, the goalie has been beaten 10 times the past two games.

“We’ve got to knock people down in front and not worry about playing goal — that’s my position,” Kolzig said.

Washington went on the power play at 12:28 of the first period. The Caps seemed almost too patient with the extra skater, not even threatening a shot, before Kip Miller passed from the right circle to Alexander Semin in the left circle, and the Russian rookie perfectly placed the puck on Jeff Halpern’s stick for the point-blank one-timer against the helpless Munro at 13:39.

Halpern’s team-high 13th goal extended his team-leading points total to 32 and ended Washington’s scoreless drought at 107:01 since the second period of Monday’s 4-1 loss to Ottawa. Halpern, who had just two goals and four assists in 25 games under former coach Bruce Cassidy, has 11 goals and 15 assists in 43 games for successor Glen Hanlon.

The assist gave Miller, playing out of position at center because of injuries to Trent Whitfield and Darcy Verot, six points in eight games, equaling his output in his previous 23 games.

Semin has six points in 11 games on the heels of a 12-game drought.

The Blackhawks were held without a shot for the first 14:28 and tested Kolzig just four times in the first period. But 2:50 into the second period Chicago defenseman Jason Strudwick beat Kolzig from the left point with his first goal in nearly a year.

The offensively challenged Caps managed just three shots during a pair of power plays in the next five minutes as they failed to capitalize on their solid first period. Then Brooks Laich, called up from Portland of the American Hockey League earlier in the day and playing in just his second NHL game, set up behind the net and gave Stephen Peat a gorgeous feed to beat Munro for his fourth goal of the year.

The 2-1 lead didn’t last long. The Blackhawks needed just 11 seconds of a 17-second two-man advantage for Berard to slap a drive past Kolzig at 11:18.

Chicago took its first lead 5:15 later as Tyler Arnason drove the right side and Ruutu grabbed the loose puck and backhanded it into the left side of the net. Even as bad as the Blackhawks are, the Caps were in big trouble, given their horrendous 1-34-3 record when trailing after two periods.

“We can’t put a full 60 minutes together,” Kolzig said. “We play well in stretches, and then we just seem to sit back and see how the other team responds after the intermission. Things were going well in the first period, and maybe we got complacent.”

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