EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In their first game back after the 10-day NHL players strike, the Washington Capitals treated the fans in half-empty Meadowlands Arena last night to a gritty, 4-3 comeback victory in overtime over the New Jersey Devils.
Peter Bondra scored the game-winner 2:15 into overtime.
Instead of looking flat, the Capitals skated reasonably well, made some nice offensive rushes and even threw around the bodies in the third period.
With two more regular-season tuneups before the playoff opener Sunday at the Capital Centre, there was reason for a positive outlook.
"This showed that it will be a little bit easier to bring us back up to the level we were before the strike, and that is encouraging," said Capitals coach Terry Murray.
"The passing look pretty crisp. The intensity and tempo was pretty good. I came away with a smile on my face," said Murray.
Bondra's game-winner off a perfect feed from Michal Pivonka on a two-on-one breakaway was not a picture-perfect shot.
He caught enough of the puck to slide it into the wide-open goal with goaltender Chris Terreri suckered out to cover Pivonka.
"I didn't have a good shot, but it was a goal," said Bondra of his 28th of the season.
L The teams had different agendas on the NHL's first day back.
The Capitals, with second place in the Patrick Division guaranteed and with no shot at overtaking the New York Rangers, left behind first-string goaltender Don Beaupre, defensive standouts Kevin Hatcher and captain Rod Langway, as well as Dave Tippett, Tim Bergland, Todd Krygier and Randy Burridge.
The Devils, however, had no such luxury and fielded all their regulars. Tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins in third place, New Jersey was looking for a win before today's showdown with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Capitals were unable to protect a 3-2 lead, allowing defenseman Alexei Kasatonov to tie it with his second goal of the game with 2:26 left.
Trailing the play, Kasatonov skated in to pick up Claude Vilgrain's rebound and snap it past goaltender Jim Hrivnak.
The Capitals had taken the lead on Pivonka's blast from inside the right faceoff circle that beat Terreri on the glove side.
The Capitals had rallied for a 2-2 tie 1:13 into the final period when Dino Ciccarelli had taken over the team scoring lead from Dimitri Khristich with his 37th goal.
The Devils had gone up 2-1 late in the period, when shoddy play by Hrivnak allowed Kasatonov's first goal. Kasatonov took a wrist shot from just outside the red circle, which Hrivnak blocked with his blocker. But the puck bounced on top of his mask and then rolled down his back and in.
"That was one of those fluke goals," said Hrivnak after his sixth win of the season.
Just 49 seconds into the game, a Capitals defensive breakdown left Zdeno Ciger wide open to cut down the slot and poke in Scott Steven's perfect pass through Hrivnak's pads.
"That made me realize that I needed to be sharp and ready," said Hrivnak.
The Capitals tied it at 1 only 27 seconds into the middle period on a power-play goal by Mike Ridley. In a goal-mouth scramble with Terreri on the ice and the puck bouncing in the air, Ridley flicked at the puck just below shoulder height for his 29th of the season.