The Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2000; Page D1
MCI Center was packed well before faceoff last night. A sellout crowd of 18,672 braced for Dale Hunter's No. 32 to be raised to the rafters; Hunter braced for an emotional ceremony, hoping to keep his cool. He was clearly overwhelmed when his former teammates presented him with an all-terrain vehicle, a horse trailer and the arena's penalty box, where the hard-nosed center spent considerable time.
"To get my sweater retired, I couldn't have dreamed about this in a million years," Hunter said.
Then his former teammates took the ice in a whirlwind, playing for their former captain. The Capitals struck twice early, surrendered the lead just as quickly and dug deep for a third-period effort befitting Hunter, defeating the Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey Devils, 4-2. Left wing Chris Simon stepped up during the second intermission, urging his teammates to win the game for Hunter and everyone responded.
"[Simon] mentioned that you can't have a night like this honoring one of the organization's greats and come out flat and lose the game," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "It was really important to win it for Dale. . . . It was a great tribute to Dale."
Winger Ulf Dahlen scored the game-winner 78 seconds into the third period. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, back from a head injury, fed Dahlen, who cruised down the right wing with his body angled as if he would pass through the slot.
Goalie Martin Brodeur played the pass, eyeing forward Steve Konowalchuk as he charged to the crease. Dahlen put the puck between Brodeur's legs "I think it hit a skate on the way in," the goalie said tying the team's season high with points in five straight games.
The suddenly vulnerable Devils, in a 2-7-3 rut, never challenged after that. Konowalchuk scored an empty-net goal with 37 seconds left, and, aptly, Hunter was named the game's number one star.
The Capitals (36-22-11) took the season series from the Devils, 3-1, and lead the Southeast Division by two points heading into a much-needed three-day break. They have 30 wins against the Eastern Conference (30-14-5), most in the NHL (New Jersey has 29), and are seven points behind the Devils.
"I don't think that Jersey is out of reach," Simon said. "We want to sneak up and catch them like we did Florida."
Washington is 17-3-2 against Eastern teams at MCI Center and 21-5-7 at home overall. They have allowed 64 goals at home, second fewest in the NHL, and have earned at least one standings point in 29 of their 33 home games. They have not allowed more than two goals at home since Nov. 19 (22 games), excluding empty-net goals.
Early on, it seemed a blowout was brewing. The Capitals (28-14 in one- and two-goal games) scored on their first two shots. Rookie Glen Metropolit, playing on the top line after his recall from the minors, dumped the puck into the corner and Adam Oates found Chris Simon in the low slot. Simon snapped a one-timer into the high corner, scoring his team-leading 24th goal less than four minutes into the game, his 20th goal in the last 39 games.
Sixty-five seconds later the lead was 2-0. Peter Bondra's shot deflected off Joe Murphy, slipped under Brodeur and inched across the line. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Former owner Abe Pollin stood and clapped in new owner Ted Leonsis's box. Hunter beamed as he watched from the restaurant inside the arena.
"It was a big night," defenseman Ken Klee said. "[Hunter] is a hero for all of us that played with him, as well as guys who just know him. Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows Dale Hunter. You gotta love him."
But before Murphy's goal could be announced the Devils had altered the course of the game. Their two recently acquired defensemen Vladimir Malakhov and Deron Quint hooked up on a cross-ice passing play 38 seconds after Murphy's tally. Soon it was 2-2. Scott Gomez, likely to be a near unanimous choice as rookie of the year, cut around Gonchar and wristed a shot between Kolzig's glove and the post about eight minutes in.
"A couple of really poor breakdowns in coverage," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "And you can't blink against New Jersey."
The teams traded chances in the second period and the Capitals established a more consistent offensive presence. Kolzig (33 saves) wasn't tested as often but did face the ultimate challenge a penalty shot.
Gonchar hauled down Sergei Nemchinov on a breakaway. Kolzig held his ground on the penalty shot; Nemchinov stayed on his forehand and hit the post. "[Kolzig] made himself big enough to force the guy to shoot it wide," Wilson said.
With 17 seconds left in the period, Claude Lemieux re-directed a pass. Kolzig threw himself at the shot, sliding out of the crease fully extended, getting his big frame in front of the puck. "I just tried to jam him," Kolzig said.
The Capitals outplayed New Jersey from there, giving forth the kind of effort that personified Hunter on a night that will be his forever.