LANDOVER -- What is this, Steel Curtain II?
Suddenly, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who gave up goals in wholesale lots during the regular season, are as stingy as their Steel City football counterparts of the 1970s, featuring Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert et al.
For the second time within a 48-hour period the Washington Capitals got what they wanted against the Pens last night, a tight-checking, low-scoring game. And lost, 3-1.
The Caps now trail their Patrick Division playoff final, 3-1, with Game 5 in Pittsburgh tomorrow night. They're checking the phone line to the governor's office in the event a reprieve is granted.
"It's been done before," reminded Washington's captain Rod Langway, referring to a team coming back from such a deficit. But to win, goals are a prerequisite. One rarely gets the job done.
If this was a boxing match, they'd refer to the result as a "Las Vegas decision," so one-sided was the play in favor of the loser.
"We dominated them in every phase of the game," said Capitals coach Terry Murray, and his Pittsburgh opposite Bob Johnson wasn't about to disagree. Unfortunately for the home team, games are decided on just one thing, goals, not shots taken, golden opportunities squandered or posts and crossbars hit.
The play of the night and winning goal occurred midway through the third period and with the score knotted, 1-1. Kevin Stevens broke in along the left boards and slipped past Langway wide. Then he beat Langway again with what his coach called "as good a change of pace [skating move] as there is in hockey."
Almost instantly, he was in position to unload a backhand shot on Don Beaupre and he ricocheted it into the net off the far post. A goal at that juncture was as good as a dozen the way Tom Barrasso was minding the goal down the other end of the rink.
"I didn't see the replay," said Langway, "but I was playing [Mark] Recchi one-on-one. Stevens went into the corner and no one reacted. When a guy walks in out of the corner untouched, something's wrong."
What Langway is going to see if he checks the tape is Stevens making "an All-Star play," according to Murray, while he carried total responsibility on the play.
The plain fact is, however, the Caps just didn't appear destined to win this one no matter how impressively they outmaneuvered the Penguins at every turn.
This was hinted at fairly early when Alan May found himself in control of the puck standing just a few feet in front of the Pittsburgh goal. "I did everything I was supposed to do," he said, deking Barrasso off his skates. With the goalie down, he lifted the puck.
"They get the luck when the puck hits the post and goes in. I hit the crossbar and it doesn't [go in]. I couldn't believe it," said May.
There were other shots with red light written all over them among the 38 Barrasso turned away. Dimitri Khristich couldn't control a bouncing puck and his poke flew over an all but empty net. Name the Washington player; all appeared to have a goal on their stick at one time or another.
"Us being outshot is not a major issue anymore. We gave up the second most shots in the NHL this season," Barrasso said. And this was with their best defensemen -- Paul Coffey, Ulf Samuelsson and Paul Taglianetti -- playing. All three are on the shelf presently.
"What their defensemen are doing for Barrasso," said Murray, "is letting him see the puck."
"What my defensemen are doing for me," said Barrasso, "is jumping on the rebounds and getting rid of them."
"This is a crazy game," assured Stevens, who ran his 11-game playoff totals to 15 points with seven goals and eight assists. More importantly, he registered his third straight game-winning goal against the Caps.
Besides the goal, it was Stevens who got his stick in the way of a Mario Lemieux shot causing it to fly in the air from where Recchi knocked it in with a waist-high swipe for Pittsburgh's first goal. Phil Bourque's empty-netter completed the scoring in the last 30 seconds.
Tim Bergland scored Washington's goal giving his club the early lead, tapping in a rebound after a Dino Ciccarelli shot from a fierce angle all but disrobed Barrasso.
"This late in the season and considering the importance of the games, we can't get down now," said May. "Sure, it's frustrating to lose when you have 40 shots [actually 39], but you just keep going. I can't see us losing again if we play like that."
"We gotta win three games, it's as simple as that," said Langway.
Simple isn't the word for it.