LANDOVER -- This was to be the year the Washington Capitals advanced beyond the Patrick Division championship round.
Instead, they didn't even get there.
Armed with the NHL's second-best regular-season record as they entered the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year, the Capitals held high Stanley Cup hopes. But those hopes were --ed last night before 17,783 at the Capital Centre as the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins completed an improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit by winning their third straight game over the Capitals, 3-1, in Game 7.
The Penguins, who will face the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division championship round, managed to get only two shots past goalie Don Beaupre, but that was all that was needed.
Mario Lemieux had a hand in the first two goals, scoring short-handed and assisting on Jaromir Jagr's power-play goal. Joe Mullen added an empty-net goal in the final seconds.
"We were beaten by one guy -- Mario Lemieux," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "He is a great player who does so many things well. He spent so many minutes on the ice tonight. Regular shift, power play and penalty-killing. He did it all."
Lemieux, who scored seven goals in the series and handed out 10 assists, said: "We had a great game plan for our last three games. We were very patient and we forechecked with one guy. We had four guys at our blue line and tried to pick up the puck off Washington's defensemen. It worked very well. When you're down 3-1 in a series, you try to do different things to help the team win."
Tom Barrasso was great in the Penguins goal, allowing just one )) score, by Al Iafrate, in the second period.
"When you have to win two games on the road against a powerful team like Washington, you try not to give them anything," said Penguins coach Scotty Bowman. "We knew we had to get our matchups right, not let Washington go wild in their building. We had to try to control the tempo of the game."
The Penguins did just that from the opening faceoff, keeping the Capitals from their normal game of pouring shot after shot at the goal. Pittsburgh limited the Capitals to 19 shots on goal.
"It's very tough to face the music after leading the series, 3-1," said Murray. "It's very tough to say that the season is over. It was such a terrific year and I know a lot of it is tainted by what we did in the playoffs. Our special teams let us down tonight. They were something that we relied on all season, but they let us down tonight."
The Capitals gave up a short-handed goal, a power-play goal and did not score on two power-play chances.
"We knew it would be a defensive game," said Capitals center Dino Ciccarelli, who went the third game without a goal after scoring four in Game 4. "They got a break on our power play and Mario scored short-handed. Pittsburgh adjusted to our style of game. They got breaks on the special teams and we did not. Even when we were up 3-1 in games, we knew it would be a battle. We tried to stay focused on our game plan, but it didn't work out."
Iafrate, who scored the Capitals' goal, said: "Pittsburgh is a good team and they executed better than we did and won. They did not let us enter their zone under control. Barrasso was good, but holding us to one goal at home should not happen. We just did not bury the chances we had."
Pittsburgh's Bob Errey said: "It's a tremendous feeling. It shows what a group of guys can do. We just carried over from the third period of the previous game. We played tough defense and scored timely goals. Washington hit the post on the power play and we came back and scored short-handed."
Added Penguins teammate Bryan Trottier: "Everybody's got to feel good about this series. We got the effort we needed. Washington is a great team and was everything we could handle."
Mullen said: "Game 5 was the turning point. It gave us a chance to go back to our building. It gave us a another chance when we were in bad shape."
Caps vs. Penguins
/ Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3 Game 1: Washington 3, Pittsburgh 1
Game 2: Washington 6, Pittsburgh 2
Game 3: Pittsburgh 6, Washington 4
Game 4: Washington 7, Pittsburgh 2
Game 5: Pittsburgh 5, Washington 2
Game 6: Pittsburgh 6, Washington 4
Game 7: Pittsburgh 3, Washington 1