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Caps take 'baby step' in playoff drive, 2-1


WASHINGTON - You could almost see the need on the faces of the Washington Capitals as they took the ice last night against the Minnesota Wild.

All week, the word circulating through their locker room has been "desperate," as in "desperate to put together a string of wins to make a run at the playoffs."

And so, the Caps took on the Wild, an equally desperate team, in search of a first win that could be the start of a string.

They played ugly, but effective, hockey against the Wild's trapping defense, with Ulf Dahlen and Peter Bondra scoring the goals and goalie Olie Kolzig making the big saves in the closing minutes to secure Washington's 2-1 victory.

"It was our first baby step toward the postseason," said Kolzig, who made 29 saves and assisted on Dahlen's goal. "When we gave up that short-handed goal [to Richard Park], with the confidence we don't have, we could have crumbled.

"Winning the game was a baby step to build on, but holding on to win in that situation was a big step. Everybody knows what their job is and we just all have to do it to get things turned around."

The victory, before 16,224 at MCI Center, improved the Capitals' record to 21-26-8-1 and brought them to five games below .500.

With just 26 games remaining - a total of 52 available points - Washington probably will need at least 37 of them to have any hope of making the postseason. And that won't be easy with 23 of those games tucked into a 47-day period following the Olympic break that ends Feb. 25.

All that is part of the reason the Caps want to go into the Olympic break on a high note. Washington now will travel south for back-to-back games in Nashville and Tampa tomorrow night and Saturday and then return home for another meeting with the Lightning next Monday.

"We play these four teams before the Olympics and they're all under .500 like us," said Jaromir Jagr, who had an assist and missed scoring by the width of the goalpost last night.

"It would be a good start. We've got to start somewhere. We lost seven of our last eight games before tonight. No one thinks you're going to come out and win 10-0. Tonight, we got the job done."

It was Washington's big men who stepped up - Dahlen, Bondra, Oates, Jagr and Kolzig, and it was Kolzig who got the Caps off on the right foot. All of them had talked prior to the game about the need to win these next four games to have a reasonable shot at making the playoffs.

They also said that everyone on the team has to realize jobs are on the line and that embarrassment looms if they don't make an honest and strong effort every night.

So, with 5:09 left in the opening period, Kolzig slipped an outlet pass to Jagr and the big right wing carried the puck into the Wild's zone. He handed off to Dahlen, and the Swede legged the puck through traffic and around the back of the net.

He saw Oates setting a pick that gave him some working room and swung around the far side of the goal. He struck the puck with such a swift and sudden swing that it made Wild goalie Dwayne Roloson (17 saves) spin like a top before tumbling over on his back.

Minnesota 0 0 1 - 1

Washington 1 1 0 - 2

First period - 1, Washington, Dahlen 17 (Jagr, Kolzig), 16:51. Penalties - Sacco, Was (hooking), 1:47; Kuba, Min (interference), 9:40.

Second period - 2, Washington, Bondra 27 (Oates, Dahlen), 13:32 (pp). Penalties - Washington bench, served by Ciernik (too many men on ice), 1:49; Kuba, Min (high-sticking), 2:52; Dowd, Min (high-sticking), 12:15; Ciernik, Was (unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:31.

Third period - 3, Minnesota, Park 4 (Walz, Sekeras), 3:07 (sh). Penalties - Mitchell, Min (roughing), :23; Hendrickson, Min (rough), :23; Bondra, Was (roughing), :23; Nikolishin, Was (roughing), :23; Dowd, Min (slashing), 1:30; Fortin, Was (holding), 7:39; Khristich, Was (interference), 18:34.

Shots on goal - Minnesota 14-8-7-29. Washington 6-8-5-19. Power-play opportunities - Minnesota 0 of 5; Washington 1 of 4. Goalies - Minnesota, Roloson 8-15-6 (19 shots-17 saves). Washington, Kolzig 19-23-6 (29-28). A - 16,224 (18,672).

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