Capitals say odds irrelevant Penguins next test for resilient team

April 17, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

His skates still on, Peter Bondra clomps into the dressing room, takes a seat at his locker and lays out the game plan for the Washington Capitals' opening-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It looks like a pretty easy game," said Bondra, the team's leading goal scorer. "All we have to do is leave our hearts on the ice, do our best and believe in each other."

The funny thing is, the Capitals, who are about to take part in what is, on paper, perhaps the most lopsided playoff series in their history, believe it.

Tonight, in Game 1 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, the seventh-seeded Capitals, minus nine of their key players, will face off against the second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, three of the top four scorers in the NHL.

"What we have to do," continued Bondra, "is stay out of the penalty box, shut down Jagr and Lemieux, have Jimmy [goaltender Jim Carey] give his best, me and Pivo [Michal Pivonka] score and everybody else chip in."

In four previous postseason meetings, Pittsburgh has has had the best of it, winning three times, including twice rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit.

But those games are history and Capitals captain Dale Hunter points out that, in sports, "You never know what the outcome will be. That's what makes sports so great. That's why you go play."

Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld makes it sound even simpler. All the Capitals have to do, he says, is win one game four times before the Penguins do.

The Penguins have 10 more wins than Washington and have averaged almost twice as many goals. They have the No. 1 power-play unit in the league (26 percent) and are eighth best in penalty killing.

"The situation we're in is exciting, said Washington's Todd Krygier. "There is room for everyone to step up and be the player they always wanted to be.

"The wonderful thing about hockey players is that we all believe we're good; that whatever team we play on is the best team. This team has believed that all season."

Penguins' No. 1 priority tonight will be to contain Bondra. Even Schoenfeld says that would be his game plan if he were facing the Capitals.

Bondra finished the season with 52 goals, the fourth-best total in the league. Washington's second- and third-best goal scorers, Steve Konowalchuk (23) and Keith Jones (18), are among the injured players.

"With our full roster, we wouldn't be the favorite in this series," said Schoenfeld. "Now it's even more critically important to have good discipline.

"To get a lot of penalties would just play into their hands. . . . But, offensively, a game plan only goes so far. Someone has to hit the back of the net."

Pittsburgh defeated the Caps in three of four meetings this season, but one win went to overtime and none was easy.

While other teams in the league give Pittsburgh's Big Three respect, the Capitals don't. They'll go right at them, hoping to take away time and space and, by doing that, give Carey a fighting chance.

A year ago, Carey played in his first NHL playoff series, against the Penguins. Carey had been an NHL player for less than two months, and he had carried the Capitals the same way he did this season.

"This year, going into the playoffs, it's not any different from what we've been doing the last month," Carey said. "It's almost relieving. There has been so much pressure to get in . . .

"Now we've made it. Now we're the underdog. . . . Now we can just go play. Everybody is expecting us to lose. I don't know how to put it, but if we beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, to have a chance to be part of that, that would be pretty neat."

Not to mention amazing.

Capitals tonight

Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

What: Game 1, Eastern Conference first-round playoff series

Site: Civic Arena, Pittsburgh

Time: 7: 30

TV/Radio: ESPN2/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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