LANDOVER -- No one knew where the goals would come from in the Washington Capitals' season opener last night against the St. Louis Blues. If anyone had speculated, they wouldn't have believed they would come like this.
But the Capitals were brilliant opportunists in their 4-1 win.
A first-period goal by defenseman Sergei Gonchar, a short-handed goal on a breakaway by Ken Klee and another breakaway goal by Joe Juneau in the final seconds of the second period staked Washington to a 3-0 lead. When Pat Peake scored on the power play at 13:47 of the third, the USAir Arena sellout crowd of 18,130 was on its feet dancing.
Goalie Jim Carey, who was sensational in his rookie season, picked up where he left off. He carried a shutout into the final three minutes of the game before the Blues could break through to make the final 4-1.
It was a victory that came while Washington's Peter Bondra, the league's leading goal scorer of last season, and Michal Pivonka, the Caps' third-leading scorer last season, are holding out and playing for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League.
"It was a confidence builder for the team," said Peake, who had an assist to go with his goal. "We had a lot of unanswered questions without Peter and Michal. There was the question about where the goals would come from, and everyone around the locker room knew they had to pick it up a little bit."
It was a particular joy for Peake, who said it was his first goal "in about 20 months." His last goal, in fact, came April 1, 1994.
It was also Washington's first season-opening victory since 1992, when it won in Toronto and its first home-opening season win since beating Pittsburgh here in 1990.
"It's obviously good to get the first one," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "Our players seemed to play with a real purpose. They paid attention to the big gunners. That last goal, Mike Eagles was in the right place. It was just too bad the puck skimmed off him.
"But we had three kids step up with goals -- Gonchar and Peake and Klee -- and then we got that dramatic effort and goal from Joe at the end of the second period.
"I think everyone in that locker room feels pretty good about themselves right now."
The Capitals held Brett Hull to no shots and also shut down Dale Hawerchuk, Geoff Courtnall and Al MacInnis, too, until the closing minutes, when he put St. Louis on the scoreboard with a power-play goal with 2:52 left.
"We knew how we had to play," said defenseman Sylvain Cote. "We knew we weren't going to win by finishing fancy plays. We knew we had to get our noses dirty in the corners, and that's what we did. It was too bad in the end that we gave up that one goal on Jim."
St. Louis was 0-for-6 on the power play at that point and Carey had stopped all 17 of St. Louis' shots before MacInnis' shot made it by him.
Carey, 18-6-3 last season with four shutouts, started slowly in the preseason, saying it was simply a time for getting in the right frame of mind and the right physical condition. Last night, he had it almost perfect.
"If you don't remain respectful, this is what can happen," said St. Louis coach Mike Keenan, who thought goalie Grant Fuhr was one of the few players he had on the ice who played well. "You have to give Washington credit; they were emotionally prepared. And maybe [we] made the assumption that it is a star-studded team vs. a group of youngsters. Maybe [we] were thinking that."
Washington's game plan had called for the Capitals to limit their mistakes, keep St. Louis off the power play and "prevent them from getting anything for free."
It was operation shutdown, and as a team, the Capitals executed.
"When you talk defense, you're talking the entire team," said Schoenfeld. "We wanted our defenseman moving up, staying close, in case there was a turnover in the neutral zone we'd be able to get to it, and certainly, coming back, we wanted our forwards near the defenseman in the neutral zone. So I think our forwards angled St. Louis pretty well to the outside and enabled our defensemen to key on the guy who was getting the puck."