PITTSBURGH -- It's probably fortunate Vince McMahon was off peddling his World Wrestling Federation somewhere last night. If he had caught a peek at what transpired here in the third game of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals NHL playoff series, he would certainly be going into his pocket for a piece of the action.
Welcome to HockeyMania I! First off, the Pens won, 6-4, their first victory in the best-of-seven. And the sellout crowd at the Civic Arena was treated to a virtuoso performance by the Marvelous One, Mario Lemieux.
Most players would consider it a terrific playoff, totaling three goals and three assists. Mario did it between sojourns on the bench as though this was just a typical night at the old rink, sore shoulder and all.
These facts aside, the manner in which the game was played during the course of three hours and 15 minutes left observers to conclude they had somehow dialed up the twilight zone. Or a remake of the Paul Newman flick "Slap Shot."
Several of the combatants got in a good workout skating back and forth to the penalty box. The Penguins enjoyed a man-advantage 12 times, scoring thrice. The Caps were close behind with 11 and two.
As Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman pointed out, "I got nothing to say except we had the No. 1 or No. 2 referee [Don Koharski] here and he wasn't going to take any guff. He called everything. There was nothing he could do to stop the penalties."
Wrong. He might have established some sort of control early. No sooner was the puck on the ice for the first time when Dino Ciccarelli threw a flying tackle at Pitt defenseman Larry Murphy and Koharski remained motionless and silent.
The tone was established and both teams commenced staging one of the chippiest displays of hockey imaginable. The thing is, the fans probably loved it. Eight penalties were whistled during the first 20 minutes and not one of them was coincidental to another, thus wall-to-wall power plays.
The Caps were tiptoeing on the edge allowing Mario and his cohorts five 5-on-4 assaults on Washington goalie Don Beaupre, but he was equal to it . . . for a while.
The Caps led, 2-1, after a period and pressed their luck. They continued to put Pittsburgh on the power play and the Penguins left them standing still with a 4-0 blitz during the second session:
Mario set up Joe Mullen, Mario set up Jaromir Jagr, Mario scored from afar, Mario scored from in close. Mario announced he's entering the California primary. It got to be a little much. Still the teams raged back and forth as if Koharski wasn't there whistling stoppages in play and sending people off the ice in wholesale lots.
The teams totaled five power plays in the first game won by the Caps, 3-1. Ah, for those structured times. The total rose to 15 in Game 2, again won by the Caps, 6-2, thence to 23 last night.
Washington coach Terry Murray said "special teams are a big part of the game, but I had no idea it would be like this. I expected a lot more 5-on-5 hockey, which we want to play because we've matched up well with Pittsburgh all season [winning five of seven games]."
With a 5-2 lead after two periods, it was expected the Penguins would pull back and run out the clock. But four of the first five penalties called in the third period were against them. And the boys were getting nasty. Koharski, if he had eyes in the back of his head and two more on each side, couldn't have caught it all.
Countless interference, holding and hooking calls turned into slashing, charging, and, finally, a high sticking and game misconduct call against Dimitri Khristich. Only trouble was, it wasn't he who pole-axed Lemieux, setting a huge fire under the local citizenry, but Michal Pivonka.
The Penguin players knew the real/accidental culprit, so while Khristich was in the locker room enjoying a shower, Pivonka was out on the ice trying to avoid all the opposition types taking runs at him with sticks held on high.
A three-deficit was cut to one when Washington's Al Iafrate and Kevin Hatcher scored at 13:57 and 17:48 and, with a minute remaining, the Caps were pressing with a sixth attacker when Hatcher attempted to loft the puck into the Pittsburgh zone.
Only problem was he was trying to hoist it over the 6-foot-5 Lemieux. He simply jumped, brought the puck down and blithely skated in to complete his hat trick.
The Caps took the setback in good graces. Kelly Miller classified the whole thing as a joke, the way the game was conducted as he said, "We know we lost, but what did we really lose?"
Game 4 goes tomorrow night and all parties expressed hope that the raggedness of last night's encounter is missing and gone for good.