- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — Nearly a year ago, the Washington Capitals left Tampa with a 2-0 edge over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. But while Tampa Bay rallied to win that series and leads the East with eight days left this season, Washington has collapsed to the level of a minor league team.

Of the 19 Caps who played in last night’s 4-1 loss to the Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum, only four — Jeff Halpern, Joel Kwiatkowski, Kip Miller and Trent Whitfield — skated in last spring’s series. By contrast, 15 of the 19 players in the Lightning lineup also were on the ice last April.

That huge difference goes a long way toward explaining how teams that were so evenly matched a year ago are near opposites today. Washington, enduring its worst season in 26 years, is 22-45-9-2. Tampa Bay, having its best season, is 45-21-8-5.

“We’re a whole different team, but it has been that way for a while,” Miller said.

The Caps, who are battling to avoid the NHL basement, sank to 2-11-1 dating to their 6-3 loss here a month ago. Stripped of all of their serious offensive threats because of cost-cutting trades, they’ve scored 22 goals in those 14 games.

The Caps also wound up 3-8-3 in their final 14 games against Southeast rivals after an impressive 6-2-1-1 division record before the salary-dumping deals began in earnest Jan.23.

Washington, which used seven players who have been in the minors this season and five others who have been on waivers, has four games left — three with fellow bottom-feeders Pittsburgh (two) and the New York Rangers and one with powerful Boston.

Last night Caps goalie Matt Yeats, making his second career start and second straight in place of veteran Olie Kolzig, stoned Brad Richards on a short-handed breakaway at 7:55 of the first period, but 1:20 later he had no answer for Vincent Lecavalier, who deked the rookie down and slid a back-hander inside the right post.

Despite playing without top defenseman Brendan Witt, out with a leg injury suffered in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss in Atlanta, Washington killed penalties to Yeats and Rick Berry (serving as an assistant captain for the first time in Witt’s absence) soon after Lecavalier’s goal without allowing a shot en route to a 5-for-5 night. The Caps killed 26 of 28 penalties the last five games including all 14 on the just-concluded road trip.

Washington’s Matt Pettinger, in a 16-game drought before Wednesday, scored his seventh goal of the year and second in two games at 7:03 of the third period, knocking a rebound past Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin with rookies Roman Tvrdon and Jakub Cutta — recalled yesterday — each earning his first NHL point on the play. But Richards re-established the three-goal margin by putting home his own rebound at 10:02.

Despite the loss, the 24-year-old Yeats — who hadn’t played in the American Hockey League before this season and is in Washington only because the Caps are hoping that top goalie prospect Maxime Ouellet can backstop Portland into the AHL playoffs — acquitted himself well again, stopping 13 of 16 scoring chances through two periods and 28 of 32 total shots.

Coach Glen Hanlon said one of the few silver linings in Washington’s tailspin during the past month has been the discovery that the unheralded Yeats might have a future.

“I felt good out there tonight,” Yeats said. “It was good to have [Wednesday’s] game in hand. Most of those chances were grade-A chances. It was fun, but it was tough to lose.”

Caps forward Brian Willsie left the game after the second period with what he termed a minor injury.

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