Penguins show Caps they may be down but are far from out

Phil Jackman

March 01, 1993|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- There were reports that the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were in dire straits, floundering on a sea of strife and about to sail over the edge of the NHL, which everyone knows is flat.

Beaten by Ottawa last week, which was considered to be highly improbable if not impossible, the defending champs had to rally to tie the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday, giving them a 1-5-1 record during the past two weeks.

And then there are those who aren't playing: Mario Lemieux continues to battle Hodgkin's disease, taking radiation treatment regularly, his return remaining uncertain; meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr (alias Mario Jr.) is down with a separated shoulder and backup goalie Ken Wreggett was back home with a badly bruised knee when the Penguins hit the Capital Centre yesterday.

They were accompanied by upward of 4,000 of their faithful, who had moved in en masse from the Pittsburgh area, no doubt to make sure the team was accorded a fitting wake appropriate to past glories.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, after news of his death appeared in the public print, "reports of the Penguins' demise have been grossly exaggerated."

Not only did the Penguins handle the thought-to-be torrid Washington Capitals, 4-2, they controlled them in every aspect of the game, often making it look easy.

"I don't know what it is, but even if they don't have their stars, they create problems for us," Caps coach Terry Murray said of the Pens. "I'm beginning to think we bring out the best in the teams in our division."

Once a team that played it fast and loose at all times, which suits the Lemieux style of play to a T, over the past few seasons Pittsburgh has become a solid defensive team given to taking only calculated risks.

With two of its top guns not even suited up and 46-goal scorer Kevin Stevens far from a factor, the visitors went looking for help from previously untapped sources and came away with what coach Scotty Bowman described as "a good feeling about our depth."

He ticked off the names of players who hadn't been playing much during the team's slump and how enthused they were now after being given a chance and coming through handsomely.

"Every guy, when he's not playing, thinks he should be in there," Bowman said. "When he gets a chance and produces, it gives him a shot that carries him for quite a while."

On this occasion, the almost-forgotten soul who came though was Troy Loney, a left winger who had produced but two goals and six assists in 61 previous games. He matched that goal total and doubled his season output in the first 28 minutes. Later, Loney added an assist but could not explain his good fortune: "I have no idea how or why these things happen."

Loney, who crowded all his previous goals into a game vs. New Jersey Dec. 12, got his first goal when he found himself in a one-on-one situation against Washington goalie Don Beaupre as the result of teammate Martin Straka's winning a battle for the puck along the boards at the blue line and pushing it ahead to him.

Beaupre then had the misfortune of being screened by not one but two of his mates as Shawn McEachern slid his 25th past him. Come on, guys, let's let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Straka assisted on this goal and the next one, too, as his point total for the afternoon equaled half of what he was able to accomplish in two dozen previous games.

Each "star for a day" interviewed was quick to point out how he stepped up in this hour of need while a review of the Washington effort could probably best be described as stepped on.

"After playing at a good level with good tempo during our seven-game winning streak," said Murray, "maybe the flu bug that hit seven or eight guys on the road trip caught up to us and hurt our energy over the weekend."

Saturday, the Caps lost in Boston in overtime, 5-4, and now hold second place in the Patrick Division by just four points.

"About this time of year, you start looking ahead to the playoffs," said Murray, "and in our division it's known that if you're going to do anything, you have to beat the champs. Besides the missed opportunity of not picking up some ground on the teams chasing us [Rangers, Devils and Islanders], it would have been nice to beat these guys where we're supposed to, on home ice."

The Capitals will have many opportunities to make amends. Their next four games are on home ice, beginning with a game against the Vancouver Canucks tomorrow night. Then it's division games Friday and Sunday against Philadelphia and the Isles.

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