LANDOVER -- Now it's Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins who are closing in on the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division.
Lemieux skated through the Capitals for two outstanding assists last night, helping the defending Stanley Cup champions turn back Washington, 6-2, before a sellout crowd of 18,130 at the Capital Centre.
It was sweet revenge for the Penguins, who had been shoved around and embarrassed by the Capitals in three previous meetings this season. Washington won those three games by a total score of 21-4.
Lemieux had only one assist in those three games.
Mark Recchi had two power-play goals and Phil Bourque scored two goals to pace Pittsburgh.
Bourque and Larry Murphy had short-handed goals for the Penguins, and Troy Loney had one goal for the winners.
Dino Ciccarelli scored both goals for Washington.
Goaltender Don Beaupre held off the Penguins for long stretches of the game but he couldn't stop the Pittsburgh attack by himself.
The third-place Penguins trail the Capitals and the New York Rangers by only three points, as Pittsburgh improved its total to 46.
The loss cost the Capitals a chance to regain the Patrick Division lead. The Rangers lost, 5-4, to the New York Islanders in an early-evening game and remained in a tie for the division lead with Washington (both 24-13-1).
Washington has lost three straight games for the first time this season.
However, Capitals coach Terry Murray wasn't ready to push the panic button last night.
"It's very early," said Murray. "We're not even at the halfway mark [with two games left in first half]. We shot the puck well and went to the net well. There were a lot of loose pucks around the net that had hit his [Pittsburgh goaltender Wendell Young] feet. The next time we might score on those chances. Wendell Young came up big a lot of times in this game, especially on a shot by Randy Burridge from the corner."
After a 15-4 start, the Caps have gone 9-9-1 in their past nine games. "We're not getting away with our mistakes," defenseman Al Iafrate said. "We may be making a few more mistakes, but the opposition is turning every one of them into goals."
The confident Penguins continued to pour it on the Capitals early in the third period, scoring two goals in the first 3 minutes, 20 seconds to surge ahead, 6-1.
Murphy was set up for a short-handed goal by Lemieux 29 seconds into the third period, giving Pittsburgh a 5-1 advantage. Lemieux skated right at the Capitals defense and then unloaded a perfect pass to Murphy.
Then at 3:20, Loney scored from in front of the net to give the visitors the five-goal advantage.
Pittsburgh had built its lead to 4-1 at 11:54 of the second period as Recchi struck for his second power-play goal of the night.
Recchi scored off a sharp pass from Paul Coffey. The Penguins' power-play opportunity was set up by a roughing call against Beaupre.
Pittsburgh made the score 3-1 at 10:36 of the second on a short-handed goal by Bourque that went off Beaupre's stick. Bourque was set up for the score on a nice pass from Lemieux, who got the puck past Capitals defender Sylvain Cote.
Bourque also scored in the first period.
The Recchi-Bourque show enabled the Penguins to take a 4-1 lead into the locker room at the end of the second period.
The first period featured an intense, fast-paced duel, with the Penguins coming out on top, 2-1, on goals by Recchi and Bourque just 34 seconds apart.