UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The playoffs in the NHL's Patrick Division have started. It's the playoffs to get into the playoffs, and the atmosphere at the Nassau Coliseum last night was electric, as the New York Islanders battled to keep their hopes alive.
A near-capacity crowd of 13,328 cheered, jeered, stomped and threw confetti as the Islanders put on an early third-period charge that nearly caught the Washington Capitals.
But after Islanders defenseman Uwe Krupp brought New York to 3-2 with 51 seconds gone in the third period, Washington's Mike Ridley scored on his own rebound behind befuddled goalie Mark Fitzpatrick to give the Capitals a 4-2 lead with 14:50 left.
When Peter Bondra scored on a breakaway with 3:39 to go, Washington was a 5-2 winner.
"This was a Patrick Division game with a lot more meaning than we've seen," Capitals coach Terry Murray said. "There were real big performances from everybody, but Donnie Beaupre made a lot of big saves."
Beaupre made the saves, and Pat Elynuik scored twice for only the second time this season to lead Washington.
Elynuik's first goal came on a power play to tie the score at 1 in the first, and he scored again in the second period on a hard shot set up by Dale Hunter and Keith Jones that turned out to be the winner.
There were more than a few dangerous moments for the Capitals, as Beaupre made 12 clutch saves in the final period and 29 overall.
But the Capitals survived and increased their hold on second place in the Patrick Division to five points over the New Jersey Devils, who lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, and to nine points over the Islanders.
The Capitals return home for a six-game homestand, their longest of the season, beginning tomorrow against the Devils.
"This is like the beginning of the playoffs," Murray said. "We're in good position, but we can't let that affect our mental approach, and I think we did at the start of March. We had that seven-game streak and came back and thought about how the schedule favors us, and mentally we started to let ourselves off intensity-wise. It's important now to keep the same focus and do the same hard work."
Beaupre worked hard throughout, but one of his biggest saves came late in the first period, when the Islanders' Steve Thomas skated out of the corner and cut low across the net.
"He came across with a lot of speed," Beaupre said. "I got my glove up. It was extra effort, but it was also pretty lucky on my part."
Murray said the save was "phenomenal" and added that that is "the kind of goalkeeping you have to have when you're on the road."
With 1:19 left in the period and shortly after Beaupre's save, Todd Krygier was hit in the face with a forearm by Thomas. Krygier fell to the ice, blood gushing from his nose and a gash near his eye from his face shield, but no penalty was called.
"[Referee Don] Koharski didn't see it," Murray said. "All three of them didn't see it. If they had, they would have called it."
The incident spurred the Capitals to a 2-1 lead on their second goal, by Michal Pivonka with 58 seconds left.
The Islanders had scored first on a power play by Derek King and the score was tied on Elynuik's power-play goal with 3:21 left.
* The NHL will present three regional telecasts when its Stanley Cup playoffs premier on ABC April 18. Commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday the three semifinal games are expected to be matchups of Patrick, Norris and Smythe division teams.