Taxing defense is key to a Capitals' gain

Phil Jackman

April 17, 1991|By Phil Jackman

The Pittsburgh Penguins cuffed the Washington Capitals around pretty good during the season. Means nothing.

The Pens will have home-ice advantage beginning with tonight's Patrick Division final series opener at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh (7:35 p.m., Channel 20, WCAO-AM 600). Forget it.

The team that proved the division's best during the regular season while the Caps were finishing third has injury problems: Stars Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey and Tom Barrasso are ailing. Makes no difference.

The playoffs, you see, are a totally different proposition from what is presented on NHL rinks from October to March.

For verification, check out the opening round result of Chicago and Minnesota. The North Stars, most agreed, had no shot against the Blackhawks, who compiled the best record in the league. Minny took them out in six games, outscoring them, 12-2, over the last three games.

At the same time, the Penguins needed all sorts of good fortune to recover from a game down and eliminate fourth-place New Jersey in Game 7 Monday night.

The borrow a line usually reserved for old football rivalries, when the Caps and the Pens meet, you can throw the record book out the window.

"What happened before doesn't mean much," offered Caps coach Terry Murray, "because the circumstances are so different. You're traveling, don't get to see a team for a month or so and so on.

"In a series, though, you really get focused in. And coming off a win in another series, you're really charged up. It's something to build on."

The Caps, with a couple of days of rest and practice under their belts, are building on a three-game win streak that got rid of the New York Rangers in six games. The Broadway Blues cuffed Washington around during the regular season, too.

Conversely, Pittsburgh barely has had time to dry the uniforms, sharpen the skates and get treatment for its walking wounded.

The contrast in styles of the teams fairly screams that it will be an interesting series. The Penguins play the ice equivalent of run-and-gun basketball. The Caps think defense, sliding back into a zone and waiting for you to make a mistake.

The Caps' assignment is clear. "We've got to clutch and grab and grind it out," says winger Dave Tippett. What helps the Washington cause is this is pretty much how the Caps play all the time.

Even with good defense and goaltending, the Penguins will be tough. As John MacLean of beaten New Jersey said, "They have so much offensive talent that shutting them down for a full series is almost impossible. We kept them in check for a long time, but not in the last two games, not when it counted most."

Top gunner for Pitt, of course, is Lemieux, who is having back spasms but will go tonight. Coffey's problem is a scratched cornea in his left eye, but the best offensive defenseman in the game brushed aside talk he was through for the season and played the clutch, deciding game against the Devils wearing an eye shield.

The Caps may have a slight opening because Barrasso has a strained shoulder and will miss Game 1, and they generally have pretty good success against his backup, Frank Pietrangelo.

The latter appears to be on a roll, however, as it was he who first won a crucial sixth game in New Jersey, then returned home to shut out the Devils in the finale, 4-0.

The Caps like the idea of starting on the road, tonight and Friday. "We've done well as underdogs," says right wing Dino Ciccarelli, "and there's a lot of pressure on the home team to win the first two games."

In their last three divisional playoff series, the Caps opened on the road and beat the home-ice disadvantage by beating the Devils in six and the Rangers in five and six.

"Going into their building, we'll be happy to split the first two games," said Tippett, no doubt speaking for just about everyone in the Washington organization.

"The key," says winger Steve Leach, "is getting the Penguins to play our game."

They're saying the same thing in Pittsburgh this very moment.

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