Caps' best start is lost in worst finish of year

December 27, 1991|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,Evening Sun Staff

LANDOVER -- Hey, Caps fans, how did that humiliating loss go with your pizza?

It's been a tradition at Washington Capitals games for several years now that when the team scores six goals, all in attendance are treated to free pizza by an area sub shop chain.

The six were scored early by the home team last night as it bolted to a 6-1 lead over the New York Rangers inside the first 19 minutes. Talk about providing grist for a highlight film.

It was probably the Caps' finest period ever, Michal Pivonka logging a hat trick, linemate Dimitri Khristich two goals and a classy assist and Dale Hunter a pair of thrilling setup passes. Mike Liut was doing the job in goal, too.

It didn't seem to bother anyone when John Ogrodnick slipped the puck into the Washington net with less than a second left to send the Caps into the first intermission with a 6-2 lead. Thoughts of extra cheese and pepperoni danced in their heads.

Some probably left early. Not the Rangers, who scored the last seven goals to win 8-6.

"It was strange, we never got down," said New York coach Roger Nielson. "The guys knew we didn't play badly in the first period; just everything went wrong. When we got that second goal right at the buzzer, we felt we could win the second and third periods by two goals."

That's what the coach might have been thinking, but some of his players weren't as optimistic. Goalie Mike Richter, who was yanked from the net after the period, said, "When we came back for the second period, we just wanted to keep from getting blown out. When it got to 6-5, we said, 'Hey, we can win this thing.' "

"When you get a lead like that," said Caps coach Terry Murray, "too often you feel the game's over." The Caps went into a defensive shell, sending just four shots John Vanbiesbrouck's way in the second period while the Rangers offered 18.

Still, the Capitals were breezing, 6-3, as Liut turned away 17 shots and survived a 5-on-3 Rangers advantage for nearly two minutes as Rod Langway, Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley did yeoman work.

Come the third period, however, and less than an hour after that tremendous opening 20 minutes, the Caps were guilty of their worst 20 minutes, and that includes some of those horror shows perpetrated back in the first year of the franchise when Washington went 8-67-5.

The Rangers scored five times, making it a run of seven unanswered goals, as once again Washington's offense amounted to just three attempts at the New York net. The Rangers ended up outshooting the Caps 46-25, to go with the victory that boosted them into a first-place tie in the Patrick Division.

"We're going to have to regroup real quick," noted Murray, pointing out the suddenly torrid Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Capital Centre tomorrow night. "Otherwise, we'll be in second place and looking up for a while.

"As much as they kept coming at us, it came down to all the turnovers and giveaways we gave them. We lost concentration, and you're going to get your butt kicked hard in this league if you don't show up and keep working. We're one of the best teams in the league and we can't let a 6-1 lead get away like that."

Murray said he wasn't sure if anyone in particular was to blame (although observers could make a pretty good case against Liut), theorizing, "it takes everyone to lose a game like that. Some of our big players are not performing and they've got to get going."

The Caps played solidly right from the start, Khristich's two goals (17-18) surrounding Mark Messier's 16th for New York. Then the Rangers' Joe Cirella was sent to the box for five minutes for slashing and to the showers for sassing the referee. The Caps jammed three goals past Richter, Pivonka's 12th and 13th and Randy Burridge's 14th, before the Rangers went on the power play only to have Pivonka get his 14th short-handed.

Despite the change in momentum, the Caps still looked home free with a three-goal lead starting the third period. But that changed quickly when Darren Turcotte registered his 10th goal just two minutes into the final session. After playing so well earlier, Liut suddenly turned sieve-like, especially when guys shot low to his glove (right) side.

Paul Broten (5), Kris King (5), Mike Gartner (21), Sergei Nemchinov (17) -- seemingly everyone who suited up for the Broadway Blues lit it up. The teams are now square at 24-12-1 and Murray was asked what affect giving up sole possession of first place might have on the Caps.

"I can't be thinking about the Rangers and psychological advantages right now," he said. "We have to find out what's wrong with our club and what to do about it."

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