The crowd chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A" as U.S. national team coach Ron Wilson left the ice, but it was the Tampa Bay Lightning who had reason to celebrate going into the Olympic break.
The Lightning got their first victory of 1998 and ended a franchise-record, 16-game winless streak with Saturday night's 4-3 win over Wilson's Washington Capitals.
"We waited for this for a long time," Tampa Bay coach Jacques Demers said. "Does this ever feel good."
Stephane Richer and Jason Wiemer each had one goal and two assists for the Lightning, whose last victory was a 2-0 New Year's Eve triumph over the New York Rangers. It was also goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick's first win in 10 games since joining Tampa Bay, and it was only the third road victory in 28 games (3-22-3) for the Lightning this season.
"The last three games we've been playing well together," said Wiemer, citing a 3-3 tie with Carolina and a 5-4 loss to Detroit. "Hopefully, after the break, we can win some more."
For Wilson, however, it was an ominous send-off as he prepares to fly to Nagano to join Team USA on Sunday. He had led Washington to its best January ever, and the Capitals were 9-3-3 in 1998 before the loss.
"We had some guys already checked out on vacation," said Wilson, after putting away the American flag presented to him during a post-game ceremony.
"Some people showed where their hearts are to me. This is a game that we may look back on later on and say that was a game that cost us home ice (in the playoffs)."
Three of the Lightning's goals came on blatant defensive lapses in front of goaltender Bill Ranford, and Wilson said there would changes made after the Olympics.
"I'm not going to blame the goaltender," Wilson said. "He's supposed to have defensemen in front to get the puck out of our end or take a hit to make a play and we didn't get that tonight. ... We had too many guys on the ice tonight who aren't deserving to be in the lineup. When we have healthy bodies, out they go. I don't care."
Tampa Bay's first-period goal was a prime example. With the puck directly in front of the net, the Capitals surrounded it with every available man, but then couldn't clear it. Richer poked his stick among the 10 Capitals legs and got off a shot, and, two rebounds later, Darcy Tucker flicked in his second goal since the trade that brought him from Montreal on Jan. 16.
Tampa Bay then went up 2-0 when Paul Ysebaert put in the easy rebound after Ranford stopped Canadian Olympian Rob Zamuner's point-blank shot at 5:06 of the second period.
Slovak Olympian Peter Bondra, who turned 30 Saturday, tied the game with back-to-back goals - one on a shorthanded breakaway and one on a power play - in just under four minutes. The Bondra-Adam Oates-Andrew Brunette line has accounted for more than two-thirds of Washington's goals since its creation nine games ago.
Tampa Bay went back ahead 3-2 at 16:1of the second when Ranford couldn't glove a loose puck, giving Wiemer a chance to knock it in for his eighth goal.
Richer restored the two-goal lead with 8:49 to go in the game on a breakaway started with a feed from Wiemer.
Richard Zednik, the Capitals' other Slovakian bound for Nagano, made it close at the end, scoring from the slot with 2:20 to play. Washington outshot Tampa Bay 34-22.
In the interest of staying focused on the Capitals, Wilson had largely avoided talking about the Olympics for the last several weeks. After a loss to Tampa Bay, he suddenly decided the Winter Games were a more pleasurable subject.
"That's what I'd rather talk about right now," Wilson said.
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