LANDOVER -- Good thing for the Washington Capitals first impressions don't always hold up; otherwise, the crowd on hand at the Capital Centre would have run them out of town on a rail after the first seven minutes of their NHL playoff game with the Pittsburgh Penguins last night.
Two scandalously dumb penalties taken by Al Iafrate and Paul MacDermid during the usual early-game feeling-out process and the Pens were away and winging in what would eventually be a 6-2 Capitals win and 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series. Besides the two-goal spot, the Caps provided a welcome mat for Pittsburgh hero Mario Lemieux, returning after a week's absence from a shoulder injury.
You could tell Mario was still hurting. A man checking him constantly figured to give him problems and wear him down quickly. On the power play, however, Lemieux could avoid contact and cruise around free as a bird.
He slipped a pass to Larry Murphy just outside the crease and the former Washington defenseman scored. Less than two minutes later, Mario found Kevin Stevens unattended in front of the net and it was 2-0, Pens.
Even when the teams were at even strength and Lemieux was out there, it appeared as though the Capitals had signed a non-aggression pact and weren't about to give that sore shoulder a rap to see if it would hold up.
Not to be out-dumbed, though, the Penguins took a bad penalty, the Caps' Dimitri Khristich scored on a power play and, according to Dino Ciccarelli, "that was the most important goal of the night. We had to get back in the game first and that did it. They get the next goal and we've got to change things to score goals and that's when you make mistakes."
Washington squared it at 2-2 when Peter Bondra made an open-ice foray mindful of an O.J. Simpson maneuver on a football field to score before a couple more Pitt players took leave of their senses.
The referee had already whistled Stevens for decking Caps goalie Don Beaupre and Mike Ridley was proceeding up ice with the puck when he was mugged out in plain sight by Ulf Samuelsson. Washington had a two-man advantage with 71 seconds remaining in the period. It gained a 3-2 lead 32 seconds later and the visitors were done.
"They had to change things to get back," noted Ciccarelli. "You have to play disciplined, especially in the playoffs." The Caps scored twice in the second period, once in the third to complete their 6-0 comeback after the early 2-0 deficit.
"We should have had four or five goals on [Don] Beaupre, but he's a good goalie," said Stevens, preferring not even to think about his team's carelessness when it came to defense and inane penalties. "Now it's our turn to go home [starting tomorrow night] and win our two."
It's as simple as that when you're a scorer and part of a potent offensive team like Pittsburgh, but forgotten by some Pens is the fact the Caps have been lighting them up all season, too. And so far at least have been playing excellent defense.
Not according to Stevens. "One goal in the first game, then two tonight, that's not us," he insisted. "We're still confident. We're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We put ourselves in this position; we'll work out of it. Boston was up on us two games last year [when the Penguins won the next four and went on to claim the Stanley Cup]."
While Stevens and several of his mates spoke as if a two-game deficit was scarcely a cause for concern, Washington's captain Rod Langway sounded like a man starting to the gallows. "We can't think about being up two games. Get up too high and that's when you get beat and have to take two steps back," he said.
"Look at the guys who have been around. Experience teaches you what's going to happen in situations like this if you don't keep pushing. So the way to approach it is to figure everything's erased and the next game you start from scratch."
Formerly, if the Caps didn't play superior defense, especially during the playoffs, they were doomed. Coach Terry Murray confirmed this when he said, "The last couple of years, I don't know if we could have bounced back after giving away a couple of goals like that early."
"But they have a lot of talented young players who last year might not have been as playoff ready as they are now," said Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, who has been very ordinary so far.