LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals never say die, but late yesterday afternoon time ran out for them in Game 6, as the Pittsburgh Penguins escaped with a 3-2 victory and clinched the NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
"I would have been shocked to death if our team had ever quit," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "There is a signature on our season this year: it's that of a team that whatever it was faced with, it did its absolute best to fight through it. Tonight was no different. There were times this season when we were able to fight through it. Tonight we weren't."
The less-talented and injury-riddled Capitals won the first two games of this series in Pittsburgh but couldn't hold on over the long haul.
The Penguins became the 11th team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first two games at home.
Yesterday, the Caps were playing without their playoff points leader, Joe Juneau, who joined Washington's injury list with bruised ribs and torn cartilage.
Schoenfeld tried to change the flow and momentum of the series by starting No. 1 goalie Jim Carey in the net, instead of backup Olie Kolzig, who had been playing extremely well against Pittsburgh, backstopping both wins and the four-overtime loss in Game 4.
But Carey didn't get much of a chance to step up. Just 15 seconds into the game, the Capitals did exactly what Schoenfeld had told them not to do. They put the Penguins on the power play.
Keith Jones was called for interference on Penguins goalie Ken Wregget to give Pittsburgh its first man advantage. And at 5: 16, Kelly Miller was called for interference, giving the Penguins another.
"I guess they were overzealous," Schoenfeld said.
Penguins' Mario Lemieux scored on the first power play and Jaromir Jagr scored on the second.
at 6: 03 of the opening period, Carey, having allowed two goals on four shots, was pulled for Kolzig.
"It wasn't that they were bad goals," Schoenfeld said of his decision to put in Kolzig. "But because of what he'd been struggling with mentally and emotionally in the series, I felt, whether great goals or not, two goals on four shots would weigh too heavy on his mind."
Kolzig stopped 21 shots, but allowed one goal to Ron Francis with 12: 24 gone in the first period for a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead.
But from that point on, the Capitals took control.
"I hope we don't have to play these guys in another series for a long time," Pittsburgh coach Ed Johnston said. "We know that every time we play them they don't give up. They don't quit. We had another perfect example of it tonight. You know they're going to play hard every night you play them, so you better be ready."
Johnston wasn't ready at 10: 26 of the third period, when he got struck in the head by a flying puck. He needed 10 stitches to close the gash after the game.
Fortunately for the Penguins, Wregget was ready. He came in at the start of the second period of Game 4 and played the rest of the way.
Yesterday, as the Capitals mounted their comeback, he allowed goals by Dale Hunter and Sergei Gonchar, but that was all. He allowed just four Washington goals on 131 shots during the last 12 periods of the series.
"Wregget had an excellent series and we couldn't get it by him at the end," Hunter said. "It was just one of those things where we couldn't beat Wregget."
Though the Capitals played exceptionally well throughout this series, Hunter said it didn't make the loss sit any better.
"There's no pride when you lose," he said. "We were up 2-0 and couldn't close them out."
Who knew when Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie Tom Barrasso was forced out of action after the first period of Game 4, that that would be the key to the series?
"It's no excuse," said Washington's leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra, who did not score in the last two games. "Wregget was good, but we have to get goals anyway. I gave my best effort. I tried. We all tried. But we are all responsible. I thought we had a chance to win. We should have won."
Schoenfeld was philosophical after the loss, which marked the fourth time in the past six years that the Penguins have stopped the Capitals in the playoffs.
"Every playoff series has its own life," he said. "Every season has its own life. We lost this year to the Pittsburgh Penguins. We were supposed to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Our guys made it a hell of a series. They did everything they could do. We were beaten, frankly, by a better hockey team. Next year, we're going to have to be better."
Pub Date: 4/29/96