LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals love their rookies. Rookie goalie Jim Carey kept them in yesterday's game with the Tampa Bay Lightning early on, and rookie center Kevin Kaminski's first NHL goal turned out to be the game-winner in the second period, as the Capitals stretched their unbeaten streak to six games.
When playmaker Joe Juneau scored while flat on his belly with 2:57 to play, it was icing for the Capitals, who skated off with a 3-1 win and a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We had a meeting among ourselves about 12 or 13 games into the season and now we're where we wanted to be," said Caps defenseman Calle Johansson. "We said we have to turn it around and we have. The big reason is Jim Carey. He's been playing good and everyone else is doing a little extra. I don't know if it's a coincidence or if he turned it around for us. But, whichever it is, let's just keep it going."
The Capitals (8-10-6), who were all but counted out 12 days ago, have not lost since calling up Carey, who is 5-0-1, as they head to Tampa Bay tonight for a rematch.
"If we don't win [tonight], we won't stay [in the top eight]," said Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld. "But the one benefit to the shortened season is a lot of conference games, which means if you're able to put together a string of wins, someone else is losing and you can leap over someone. We've been fortunate to do that and that closed the gap on the rest of the pack."
Unlike Friday night, when the Capitals started fast but could manage only a 2-2 tie against Ottawa, the worst team in the NHL, the Caps started slowly in this one.
But after falling behind 1-0 on a power-play goal by Tampa's Petr Klima with 8:50 gone in the opening period, Washington slowly took control. The power-play goal, however, broke the Capitals' string of 24 consecutive penalty kills.
The Capitals' leading scorer, Peter Bondra, got Washington even at 16:34 with his 11th goal, also on the power play. Juneau and Michal Pivonka worked the relay to get the puck to Bondra in the right circle. Bondra skated toward the crease and took a shot from a sharp angle that bounced off the glove of Tampa's goaltender J. C. Bergeron, who was playing for the first time since beating Pittsburgh Feb. 24.
In between the two goals, the Capitals' penalty-killers generated some new enthusiasm and turned the momentum their way, killing a four-minute double minor on Kaminski, who was called for boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct at 10:49.
Little did anyone know but that was not the last to be heard from the rookie center, who was playing on the team's hard-checking fourth line with Craig Berube and Rob Pearson.
There was 12:43 gone in the second period when Pearson took a hard hit along the boards to get the puck up ice to Berube. On a two-on-one break, Berube held the puck until Kaminski was in perfect position for the pass that he would turn into the go-ahead goal.
"I could have had three more if I could bury my chances," said Kaminski, who had 15 goals and 20 assists in 34 games in Portland before being recalled Feb. 15. "I'm just glad I could contribute a big goal and
we got the two points. It was a lot of relief when it went in."
With Carey minding the net, Tampa would not score again. "I went out in the third period thinking, 'OK, I don't let a goal in and we win,' " said Carey. "All of our games have been one-goal games since I've been here and could go either way. But the guys keep doing the little things that make the difference. And then Joe got the third goal and I relaxed a little bit."
Juneau's goal was a beauty. He used his speed to break into the Tampa zone and his skill to pass the puck around the last defenseman to himself. Then, as he was falling, he stretched his stick as far as he could, and poked the puck past Bergeron.
"We dug ourselves such a hole at the beginning of the year," said Caps left wing Kelly Miller. "It's kind of nice to see the top a little bit now."
NOTE: The Capitals' annual auction to benefit youth hockey raised $30,000, matching last season's total. A Wayne Gretzky stick went for $1,300, a Juneau jersey raised $800 and a ride with Juneau in his airplane went for $500. A day of fishing with Sylvain Cote raised $700.
Opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning
Site: ThunderDome, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Radio: WMAL (630 AM)
Outlook: The Capitals (8-10-6) will try to stretch their six-game unbeaten streak. Coach Jim Schoenfeld would not say whether rookie Jim Carey would be in goal tonight. Carey has been in goal for every game since the streak began on March 2, and is 5-0-1 with a 2.24 goals-against average. The Lightning (9-14-2) has lost four straight. The Caps are without RW Pat Peake (mononucleosis), C Dave Poulin (groin) and G Rick Tabaracci (back). Tampa Bay reports LW Mikael Andersson (groin) and C Denis Savard (shoulder) are out.