- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

In a season full of embarrassments, it appears the Washington Capitals will avoid one final humiliation.

The Caps’ 4-2 win over Pittsburgh last night at MCI Center kept them from having the worst record in the league. Pittsburgh, which began the day last in points (54) in the NHL, could have passed Washington with a win.

The Caps (57 points) have three games left in the regular season, which closes Sunday at Pittsburgh. The Penguins, who have two games left, would have to win out without Washington gaining a point to avoid having the league’s worst mark.

Washington had offensive contributions from some unlikely sources last night. Trent Whitfield had the first three-point game in his career, including his first two-goal game. Jeff Halpern matched a career-high with three points on a goal and two assists. And rookie goalie Matt Yeats earned the first win of his brief NHL career by making 27 saves.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Yeats, who has made three starts. “I counted down the last seconds and gave myself a fist pump. I was cheering inside.”

Yeats, who rarely played for the Caps’ affiliate in Portland, Maine, before being called up on March19, made six saves during a five-minute Pittsburgh power play in the third period. The penalty kill was needed after Darcy Verot was called for elbowing. Verot had a particularly aggressive night, including two fights with Rico Fata, and recorded five penalties for a total of 23 minutes.

Washington (23-45-9-2) broke a three-game losing streak. Pittsburgh (21-47-8-4) had been making a push to get out of the cellar by going 8-2-2 in its previous 12 games, but was left stuck on 54 points after losing before a sparse crowd announced as 13,417 in the Caps’ next to last home game.

Some Pittsburgh newspapers suggested the Caps were purposely playing younger players ahead of veterans like goalie Olie Kolzig in order to finish last and gain the top pick in the upcoming amateur draft.

“Each side wanted to win the game with all that had been written before the game,” said Caps coach Glen Hanlon, whose team had won two of its previous 11. “It was sort of tongue-in-cheek that both sides benefit to lose. When you get out there … you want to win.”

Halpern gave the Caps the lead 3:45 into the game when he appeared to catch goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin (25 saves) out of position. Halpern’s 16th goal came after he took the puck off a carom behind the net, skated out to the left of the goal and tucked it inside the pipe before Aubin could adjust. Whitfield earned an assist for starting the play along the right boards.

“I would love to play in a meaningful game or be in the playoffs where those plays, scoring a goal or making an assist, just amplifies that much more,” said Halpern, who has 41 points thanks to a late-season surge. “It salvages the season. I was at a real low for my personal career in December. A lot goes to Glen having confidence in me.”

Alexander Semin’s goal gave Washington a 2-0 lead with 48 seconds left in the first when the Russian rookie won the puck behind the Penguins goal and broke out to the right before shoveling a shot back over Aubin’s glove for his 10th goal. Pittsburgh cut the deficit in half 12 seconds before the first intermission on a goal by defenseman Dick Tarnstrom.

Washington answered 25 seconds after the break when Whitfield redirected Brendan Witt’s shot and scored from close range. Whitfield, a 26-year-old from Saskatchewan, also beat Aubin from inside the left circle and scored inside the left post off Halpern’s assist to give Washington a 4-1 lead 4:27 into the second.

The Penguins cut it to 4-2 late in the second period on a power play goal by Ric Jackman, who used a screen to beat Yeats.

The game featured its share of fights, particularly between Verot and Fata. The two squared off in the third, and linesman Tim Novak was hurt trying to break it up. There were some scary moments as Novak lay on the ice bleeding after being cut by Verot’s skate. Novak was cut on the left ear. He skated off under his own power, but did not return.

Immediately after the crosschecking penalties expired, the two battled again. Verot delivered several blows and clearly got the best of it as he nearly pulled off Fata’s jersey. Both were penalized four minutes for roughing and got 10-minute misconduct calls.

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