LANDOVER -- Oh-oh!
The Washington Capitals still have a 3-2 advantage over Pittsburgh in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series, but all of a sudden the Penguins are playing with a full team again.
Jaromir Jagr and Kevin Stevens, terrific performers during the regular season, but all but in absentia through the first four games decided to move out of their "Let Mario Do It" mode last night and the Penguins romped, 5-2.
Their hustle, involvement and production were key, but even more important to the defending Stanley Cup champions sending the series back to Pittsburgh tomorrow night was a simple adjustment the winner's made in their style of play.
In effect, the Penguins won with a game plan few figured they were capable of playing for a whole game: They played defense; solid, responsible defense. And the Caps were so astonished, apparently, they either refused to believe it or couldn't figure it out.
Instead of dropping back into their own zone when the Capitals had the puck, the Penguins set up a perimeter defense at the blue line. More often than not, the attacking team could go no further.
"We didn't play the dump and chase game we did in the games we won," said winger Alan May, "and we lost a lot of the intensity we build up through forechecking in that style."
It was apparent this is what was happening most of the evening and coach Terry Murray reminded the troops of same, oh, every 30 seconds or so. "But we still refused to dump it in," he groaned. "We tried to get too cute, make plays at the blue line, and it led to a series of poor judgments and mistakes."
No doubt the Caps were lulled into the feeling that this one was in the win column and that they were about to send the Penguins packing when they hit the mid-point of the game leading, 2-1. Hey, Washington's the team noted for its strong defense and here was Pittsburgh playing a game seemingly foreign to them.
"We've got a lot of character players here," said Stevens, "it shouldn't surprise anyone that we can play a disciplined game and feed off the opportunities created by our defense." True. But after months of playing a damn-the-defense, full-speed-ahead game, to suddenly become conservative and patient just didn't figure.
"After falling behind [3-1 in games], it's apparent we had to change our game plan," said Bob Errey, who probably had a career game with two goals and a masterful defensive effort shadowing Dino Ciccarelli.
As in their other victory, in Game 3 at home, the Penguins turned in a huge second period. "We kept them to only four shots in the period," said Errey, "and our traps worked. We took advantage of their turnovers."
The biggest came a couple of minutes after the Caps had assumed a 2-1 lead on an Al Iafrate goal just before the 10-minute mark in the middle session. Jagr went flying down his right wing, drew Rod Langway to himself and did a nifty pirouette away from the boards while delivering the puck right on the stick of Errey charging down the middle of the rink.
The resulting tally tied it and the issue was certainly in doubt when, late in the period and at least 100 feet behind the play, Iafrate starting pummeling Ron Francis. Big Al gives (with a goal) and Big Al takes away (with a inane penalty). A minute and a half after Iafrate put on the dunce's cap in the penalty box, Larry Murphy put the Penguins ahead for good. "I was standing there (15 feet in front of the net), and the puck just bounced up to me," he revealed.
Actually, Pittsburgh seemed to get the bounces all night, just as the Caps had a couple of nights ago in Game 4, but the Penguins weren't able to capitalize early. Jagr, for example, had a completely open net and plenty of time to tap it in from about 10 feet. He not only ended up knocking it over the crossbar, but over the glass and 15 rows up into the bleachers. Worse, the poor guy couldn't punch a hole in the ice and dive in.
The feed to Errey evened matters, though, and it was Jagr's goal that put it away. "I think the whole game came down to Jagr's play," said losing goalie Don Beaupre. "We were behind, but his goal putting them up two goals (4-2) made it really tough the way they were playing."
It was another of Murray's "poor judgments" that killed the home team. Sylvain Cote was at the point looking to keep the puck in the Pittsburgh zone, but he attempted the manuever with a skate, not his stick. It dribbled by. Jagr picked it up going by at about 70 mph and he had nothing but time to figure how he was going to beat Beaupre, one-on-one. It was no contest.
Mario Lemieux? No, he didn't take the night off, picking up an assist and playing more than half the game. He was able to move around in a more relaxed manner, however, without the weight of the whole team on his back.