LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals trailed, 3-1, there was less than a minute remaining in the second period and, with a 4-on-2 man advantage heading down ice, the carrier tossed the puck into the corner. That's the equivalent of calling a timeout.
As they say, it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks.
But the Caps had better show a little more attack versatility posthaste or their Patrick Division finals playoff series against Pittsburgh could be over quicker than you can say Mario Lemieux.
The Penguins beat Washington at its own game -- tight checking, grab and wrestle hockey -- and moved to a 3-1 win and 2-1 game advantage last night without the services of top defensemen Paul Coffey (broken jaw) and Ulf Samuelsson (broken hand).
"If you only give up three goals in your own building," said Al Iafrate of the Caps, "you've got to be able to beat that."
The home team did take an impressive run at the Penguins as the visitors went into a defensive shell during the last 20 minutes, but it was the first two-thirds of the game that had Caps coach Terry Murray mystified.
"We have to work the whole 60 minutes," he said. "What we got the first two periods wasn't anywhere near what we have to have."
Goalie Don Beaupre, who kicked away 19 of 22 shots sent his way, noted, "We weren't as emotional as we were in Pittsburgh. We got the low-scoring game we wanted, but made a few mistakes and they were there to put the puck in."
The mistakes were glaring. First, Mike Ridley skated right by Lemieux, failing to put a body on the superstar, and Mario took a pass out of the corner and easily beat Beaupre from 20 feet.
Later, still floating around free as a bird in the Caps' zone, Lemieux was invited to put a setup pass on the stick of Kevin Stevens at the goalmouth and he was more than equal to the task.
The third goal found Beaupre overly involved with action off to his right when former Cap Larry Murphy crossed a pass to Bryan Trottier, who was unattended on the left and tapped in what amounted to a gimme putt.
"We initiated things in both games in Pittsburgh," Beaupre said. "We get going when we put a good forecheck on early. We didn't seem to do that tonight."
And for that reason -- lack of intensity out of the gate -- Murray classified his team's effort as "one of the weaker efforts we've had in the last six weeks."
It was a strange time for the team to come out flat, especially with a sellout crowd doing all it could to shout the roof off the Capital Centre.
Faced with a two-goal deficit, the Caps threatened repeatedly over the last 25 minutes but, as has been well documented over the years, their roster is not laden with what you'd call expert marksmen.
Dino Ciccarelli is one guy who can put the puck in if given a decent opportunity and, knowing this, just about every Penguin took a turn assaulting the 5-foot-9 winger.
Strangely, not one of Washington's so-called policemen saw fit to inflict a little well-aimed retaliation, leaving Ciccarelli on his own to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
"We're going to have to force Lemieux a little more and make him commit earlier," Beaupre said, no doubt noticing that Mario was allowed to flit about to his heart's content nearly all evening.
Meanwhile, at the other end, the Caps stuck with their dump-the-puck style even when they had free entry at the blue line. The killer was winning goalie Tom Barrasso and his defensemen beat Cap attackers to the puck and simply sent the disc back out to neutral ice.
"This is the same as the New York [Rangers] series," said Iafrate. "We've got to forget the first three games and look at this as best-of-5 and we're down a game." He didn't bother to expand.
The boys will be at it again tomorrow night (7:35) before heading for Pittsburgh and Game 5 Thursday.