No one would have blamed Craig Billington for staying up late to welcome in the new year. After all, the Washington Capitals goaltender hadn't played in more than a month and didn't win a game in 2000.
Instead, Billington had dinner with his father, got home at 9 p.m. and went to bed early. It turns out he needed the rest: An early New Year's Day phone call brought news that Olaf Kolzig's wife was in labor, so Billington got the start and made 28 saves in Monday's 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.
"To be honest, that's why I'm here," said Billington, whose last win came on Nov. 27, 1999. "Last night, I'm eating the same as if I were playing. I go to bed when I normally go to bed. You do it in case something like this happens. It rarely happens, but that's why I get the big bucks."
The victory, in a game between the two hottest December teams, increased the Capitals' lead over the Thrashers to seven points in the Southeast Division. Washington had the NHL's best record (10-3-1) last month with 21 points, while Atlanta (10-5) was second with 20 points.
Dmitri Khristich had a goal and two assists, giving him 14 points in 11 games since joining the Capitals on Dec. 11. Khristich put in the rebound of Adam Oates' shot at 17:50 of the second period to put Washington back in front just 16 seconds after the Thrashers had tied it 2-2.
Sylvain Cote scored his first goal in 14 games, while Peter Bondra got his 20th for the Capitals. Peter Zednik added the final goal with 2:14 remaining on a power play after Donald Audette received a major for high-sticking and a match penalty for attempting to injure.
"He was getting a little frustrated," Thrashers coach Curt Fraser said. "We talked about it before the game, that discipline was going to be the key. ... The Capitals just kept coming and their power play is so good. If you are going to take needless penalties, you are going to pay for them."
Per Svartvadet and Patrik Stefan scored for the Thrashers, who outshot the Capitals 30-22. Ferraro nearly tie the game when he hit the left post from the blue line with less than four minutes to go in the game.
But it was Vezina Trophy winner's Kolzig news that sent the Capitals scrambling. Kolzig, who had started 15 straight games, notified the team at 8 a.m. that his wife, Christin, was in labor. Billington would start, of course, but emergency call-up Corey Hirsch's plane was delayed, so he didn't arrive until the end of the first period.
If Billington had been injured, defenseman Joe Reekie would have had to play goalie.
"Joe's gone and put the pads on every year a couple of times," Capitals coach Ron Wilson said. "Not that he's a very good goalie, but you've got to put somebody in there."
Billington was 0-3-2 on the season, but the team had scored just nine goals in his five starts.
"I think it's overdue," said Billington, whose best save was a diving forearm stop on Dean Sylvester's second-period breakaway. "I know my role. At the same time, it always feels good to contribute on the ice."
Bondra opened the scoring on a power play 10:34 into the game, waiting to the right of the crease to poke in a sharp cross-ice pass from Khristich for his eighth goal in six games. Bondra joins Mike Gartner as the only Capitals with 10 20-goal seasons.
Svartvadet tied the game on the fourth shot of a frantic assault on the Capitals' goal 5:25 into the second, putting in a rebound from the right circle just inside the far post.
Cote then put Washington back ahead 2-1 with a slapshot from the right point at the 12:10 mark. Stefan, taking advantage of a Capitals defensive lapse, tied it 2-2 at 17:34 when his close-range shot trickled past Billington.
©2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed