Weak Whalers provide tonic for Capitals' offense, defense

HARTFORD, CONN. — HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Washington Capitals returned to an old remedy over the weekend: They played a couple of very weak teams.

But even that didn't translate into two wins. The expansion Tampa Bay Lightning gave Washington a scare in a 2-2 tie Friday night. But Saturday, the Hartford Whalers solved the Caps' problems.


In Washington's 6-2 victory, offense was found, defense was sound and goaltending was solid.

So the Capitals -- with two victories and a tie in their past three games after a 1-3 western trip -- play at the New York Rangers Wendesday, then have a home-and-home series with the New Jersey Devils Friday and Saturday.


"We had a good effort here [in Hartford]," coach Terry Murray said. "The guys really worked hard, and it showed. That's something we needed."

The Whalers, second-worst NHL team to the Ottawa Senators, had something to do with the Caps' resurgence Saturday. Hartford has been a slow starter, and the Capitals took advantage with a strong first period.

The Caps led 2-0 after the first and took a 4-0 lead, aided by Hartford goalie Frank Pietrangelo. But once Hartford replaced Pietrangelo with No. 1 goalie Sean Burke, the tide turned and Hartford dominated in spurts.

Then it was up to Washington goalie Jim Hrivnak, who had several good saves.

"The most important thing is that we concentrated on the defensive part of the game," Murray said. "We had a few moments there that you don't really want to see, but overall we did a good job in our own end."

More important, considering Washington's lack of offense this season, the defensemen stepped up in Hartford's zone. Former Whalers defenseman Sylvain Cote scored Washington's first and third goals -- both on shots from the point.

The second goal was scored by defenseman Kevin Hatcher on a nice spin-and-slap shot off a faceoff.

"Last year we had a lot of guys that could score goals," Cote said. "This year, we just seem to be struggling in that department. So it's a chance for some guys right now to do a little more ofensively."


But the defensemen weren't alone in Hartford's zone. Center Mike Ridley had a strong game, with a goal and two assists. The first assist was the 300th of his career.

Ridley scored Washington's fourth goal, as he poked a lead pass through a sliding Pietrangelo. That goal prompted Hartford coach Paul Holmgren to send in Burke. And while the momentum shifted to Hartford, the Whalers never recovered.

Hartford was within 4-2 in the third period before late goals by forwards Alan May and Kelly Miller. "We've been working hard, but we've had trouble scoring those even-strength goals," Miller said. "It's good to break out. It all come down to hard work from everyone."

That needs to continue this week, as Washington tries for its first Patrick Division win. The Capitals are 0-5-1 in the division, and their 13 points are tied with the New York Islanders for fourth place.

With five division games remaining this month, this might be the time to make a move.

"Getting back into the division is big," Hatcher said. It's a good time to get things rolling good. We had six goals tonight. That's awfully nice. It's something we've had problems with, but if we can get on track, we're going to be fine."