Best of worst, Caps move on Weak duo swept, but the real test is yet to come


LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals were pleased with themselves yesterday, but not that pleased.

They had escaped the weekend with wins over two of the worst teams in the NHL, and collected four valuable points in the Patrick Division standings, but yesterday's 5-3 victory over San Jose left several Capitals voicing words of caution.

While most of the Capitals celebrated their rejuvenated power play -- Dale Hunter scoring twice, Dimitri Khristich once and Kevin Hatcher once -- Hunter and defenseman Al Iafrate tempered their excitement.

"We played OK," said Iafrate, who was celebrating his 27th birthday. "But I'm not overly excited about it. Look at who we played."

Said Hunter: "We know we're going to have to play better than this if we want to beat Quebec [tomorrow]. But San Jose worked hard and made this a hard-fought game."

Washington beat Hartford, 5-2, Friday. Yesterday's victory meant the Capitals won back-to-back games for the first time in 28 days.

With a precarious three-point lead over the third-place New Jersey Devils in the Patrick Division, Washington must prepare to face powerful Quebec (40-23-10). The Capitals also know nine of their remaining 13 games are against Patrick Division teams.

"I think we're starting to get going in the right direction at the right time," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "We're playing much better in the neutral zone and in our own zone and the power play is coming together at the right time. . . . If we can get one or two power-play goals in each of our next games, boy, that'll be great for us."

Washington started fast yesterday with Khristich scoring just 45 seconds into the opening period. Hunter added a power-play goal with 4:02 gone.

The Capitals built the lead to 3-0 in the second period when Hatcher scored his 29th goal of the season. This one on the power play off an assist from Mike Ridley.

"This was a big win," said Hatcher, who had one goal and three assists. "Now we've got to carry over the good things we did in this game -- the discipline, the smart decision-making. We're a good team when we play like a team and that's what we've done the last two nights."

San Jose made it 3-1 when Mark Pederson scored the first of his two goals. This one came at even strength with 5:19 left in the period. His second goal came on a Sharks power play with 11:04 gone in the third and made it 5-3.

Hunter gave the Caps a 4-1 lead with his second power-play goal with 17:49 gone in the second period. The Capitals, said Murray, stopped worrying about who should shoot and simply put the puck on the net. Then they jumped all over the rebounds.

The Capitals' power play produced on four of seven opportunities, ending an 0-for-12 drought.

The Capitals also gave up a goal on the power play when San Jose got a two-on-one breakaway that resulted in a goal by Mike Sullivan.

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