PITTSBURGH -- It was billed as a showdown. It turned out to be a game of domination.
The Washington Capitals had been pretty hot stuff of late. They carried a 13-2-2 record into the Civic Arena, thanks to the goaltending of rookie Jim Carey, who brought a 1.88 goals-against average, the best in the NHL.
But last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had lost two of their previous three games, picked up where they left off against the Capitals on Jan. 29.
The final score last night was 3-1, but it was every bit as dominant as the 4-1 win in January and as impressive as anything the Capitals had seen this season. Certainly the Capitals haven't been controlled like this since Carey arrived last month.
"Some of it was Pittsburgh, they're a very good team," said Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld.
"But very often in this league players are as good as you allow them to be. If you're in someone's face and you don't allow them to skate, I don't care how good they are, they're going to have a hard time getting free. If you allow a guy to generate speed and then you try to pick him up, then you've got problems."
Last night, the Capitals had problems. They lost their second straight and face the New Jersey Devils tonight at USAir Arena.
The victory pulled the Penguins within two points of Eastern Conference leader Quebec. The Capitals, meanwhile, wasted a chance to strengthen their position and remained sixth in the conference.
But that wasn't good enough for Schoenfeld.
"Two losses in a row are enough for me," he said. "We wasted a real good goaltending performance. I thought Jim played great. When you get a performance like that on the road, you have to come out with a win.
"The team didn't play well in front of him. . . . Those players who are expected to perform offensively and put numbers on the board are going to have to start doing what they get paid for. We've had too many players take a free ride in the offensive department and if they don't start to contribute, then we're going to end up watching hockey [after] the next three weeks instead of playing it."
Those were direct salvos at nearly everyone but Peter Bondra, who was the only Capital who managed to beat Pittsburgh's Wendell Young, whose 29-save performance belied his 3.57 GAA.
While the offense has struggled much of the season, it has been the team defense that has been the Capitals' strength.
Last night, it was the Penguins who played in the Capitals' end. They moved in in the second period and refused to move out.
Jaromir Jagr, Luc Robitaille and Kevin Stevens all found ways to beat the Capitals' Net Detective, although Carey could have made a case for nonsupport.
As it was, Schoenfeld blamed his team for an undisciplined performance that resulted in six Pittsburgh power plays and two power-play goals [Robitaille's and Stevens'] for the distasteful results.
"Sometimes players think they're working but they're not accomplishing much," Schoenfeld said. "Tonight we gave away to many cheap penalties, too many freebies -- tripping and hooking."
It wasn't until nearly half of the final period was gone, that Bondra finally broke through for a Capitals goal. With 10:12 to play he wristed the shot past Young to pull the Capitals within 2-1. It was Bondra's 23rd goal of the season.
But this night belonged to the Penguins.
Just 42 seconds after Bondra scored, Stevens scored on the power play to restore the Penguins' two-goal edge. Stevens took a pass behind Sylvain Cote, and was able to push it behind Carey, before the rookie could recover.
Ron Francis and Jagr, who had a three-point night, assisted on the goal.
"We have to regroup," said Bondra. "New Jersey will be a big game."
Washington ..0 ..0 ..1 ..-- ..1
Pittsburgh ..0 ..2 ..1 ..-- ..3
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: ESPN/WMAL (630 AM)
Outlook: The Capitals have joined the Devils as the strongest challenger to the Flyers in the Atlantic Division, so this game is important. Devils G Martin Brodeur, who was named the league's Player of the Week on Monday, had posted consecutive shutouts before losing to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night, 2-1. Capitals G Jim Carey could make his 20th consecutive start. D Jim Johnson was poked in the side last night and is questionable.