LANDOVER -- NHL teams now know when they play the Washington Capitals they're going to face first-class goaltending from Jim Carey, first-rate team defense and some pretty snazzy scoring from the likes of Peter Bondra, Michal Pivonka and Joe Juneau.
But what the rest of the NHL is learning is that the Capitals are capable of doing something they've never had a knack for.
The Capitals are continually finding a way to win.
Yesterday, with three forwards out with injury and flu, their top defenseman, Sylvain Cote, tossed from the game 6:07 after the opening faceoff for checking from behind, and their usual goal producers closed down, the Capitals used goals by rookie Jeff Nelson and Kelly Miller to beat the Boston Bruins, 2-1.
Miller's game-winning goal came with 2:01 left.
"I bet when the Bruins were talking about our team in the locker room before the game, they never mentioned Jeff Nelson -- or Kelly Miller, either," said Carey, who made 25 saves, including 10 in the third period. "When I see Kelly Miller score like that, well I don't get to feel that way the rest of the week. I mean, how often can you feel like that? I can't even explain what it feels like to win a game -- and to win against the Bruins. If we had lost, any time we lose, it affects me for days.
"So when I saw that goal go in . . . well, that's the sign of a character team when you can win without your good players being at their best."
It was a game with a lot of checking, a lot of picks, a lot of grinding in the corners and along the boards.
"What you saw," said Boston coach Brian Sutter, "was two teams battling like sons of a gun away from the puck and not giving the other anything."
It was, said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld, playoff hockey.
"What we did today is really the difference between winning close ones and not winning them," said Schoenfeld. "In the close games, people key on your scorers. . . . There's that extra effort against the offensive guns from each team, and it does leave the door open for someone else to step up and be a hero.
"Tonight, we had Nelly, who makes a tip, and Kelly Miller makes a terrific play for us. Teams that win get that. Teams that don't lose. Right now, we're the team that's winning. . . . I think it's attitude and results that combine to make that happen. We're expecting to win and we're getting the production. It's a nice cycle to be in."
Before yesterday's game, the Bruins probably were talking about Carey, the NHL Player and Rookie of the Month for March with his 11-2-2 record and a league-leading 1.78 goals-against-average.
And if not him, then Bondra, who arrived on ice with an NHL high seven-game goal-scoring streak.
Carey has his first victory in April, while Bondra will be looking to start a new streak at Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders Tomorrow night. "We got the two points," said Bondra, smiling. "We move up in the Conference. I'll take this."
In an Eastern Conference race that can make observers dizzy, with the way teams rise and fall daily, yesterday's two points bumped the Capitals up to fourth. They also are within three points of the Atlantic Division lead, which would bring the No. 2 seed and home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the postseason.
"Everything is focused on the big players, so it allows the other guys to score," said Carey. "It's like we focus on [Cam] Neely and [Ray] Bourque and [Adam] Oates, not because the other guys on the team aren't good, but because they're Neely and Bourque and Oates.
"It's like Michael Jordan. When he's there at the end of the game, everything closes in on him. So when it's down to the last five seconds, Chicago gives it to someone else because everyone is focused on Jordan."
Caps rookie defenseman Ken Klee slapped the puck toward the Bruins goal 4:26 into the second period, and Nelson tapped it home for the 1-0 lead.
Nelson didn't even make the pre-game notes because he was called up from Portland and arrived yesterday just in time to suit up for the game.
"Sometimes someone who is out there doing the mucking is going to get a goal," said Nelson, who scored for the first time in the NHL. "And that helps out. That takes some of the pressure off the guys who are usually doing the scoring on a night when they don't have it."
Boston's goal also came from an unexpected quarter. It was defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, with 11:25 gone in the third, who tied the game on his first goal of the season.
And then it was Miller time.
"It was the kind of patient, controlled play you see goal scorers make," said Schoenfeld. "Kelly has scored some big goals for us and whether we expect that kind of play from him or not, we're very happy to have it."
Boston ... 0 0 1 -- 1
Washington 0 1 1 -- 2
First period--No scoring. Penalties--Cote, Was, major-game misconduct (checking from behind), 6:08; Murray, Bos (high-sticking), 12:42; Ruhloff, Bos (holding), 19:00.
Second period--1, Washington, Nelson 1 (Klee), 4:24. Penalties--Murray, Bos (hooking), 18:09; Khristich, Was (holding), 18:28.
Third period--2, Boston, Kasatonov 1 (Oates, Donato), 11:25. 3, Washington, Miller 7 (Tinordi, Hunter), 17:59. Penalty--Klee, Was (interference), 9:12.
Shots on goal--Boston 6-9-11--26. Washington 7-4-4--15. dTC Power-play opportunities--Boston 0 of 3; Washington 0 of 3. Goalies--Boston, Lacher 14-8-1 (15 shots-13 saves). Washington, Carey 12-2-2 (26-25). A--16,223 (18,130). Referee--Mark Faucette. Linesmen--Gord Broseker, Dan Schachte.