WASHINGTON -- What must it be like for the Washington Capitals to know that any one mistake, any split-second lapse can make the entire difference between winning and losing?
That kind of pressure is talked about and rejected in conversation. Every hockey fan has heard it: "The pressure is on them." ... "We don't dwell on that stuff." ... "We just have to play our game."
Yesterday afternoon in Game 5 of this NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins stepped on the ice with the best-of-seven series tied at two games. Both teams knew the importance of this game.
And both teams came out and played well from the drop of the puck. But with 6:35 gone in the opening period and again 31 seconds later, the Caps got caught "puck watching" and, just like that, they were down 2-0 in a game that would wind up a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory.
The series returns to Pittsburgh for Game 6 tomorrow night, and if Game 7 is necessary it will be back at MCI Center Tuesday at 7 p.m."[We] did an excellent job. I can't fault [our effort]," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "It was just a tight, tight game we had. One bad shift in the game and they scored two goals off it. Other than that, I can't find any flaws in our game -- except we couldn't find a way to score.
"Our skill people have to score goals. When you have opportunities, you've got to find the net or bury your chances and, until we do, we're not going to win."
The lack of scoring was a familiar refrain, but the 31-second defensive lapse by the Jeff Halpern line was not.
Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr made what Caps goalie Olie Kolzig called "a heck of a move" to make a great shot that Kolzig saved. But while Kolzig's teammates were crowded close to the net, the rebound went straight to Pens defenseman Andrew Ference, who one-timed it past Kolzig for a 1-0 lead.
In a series in which the team that has scored first has managed to win each game, it was already a big goal. When, seconds later, the puck came out to Jan Hrdina near the right circle, Halpern, who had been making his living as Mario Lemieux's shadow, slid toward Hrdina with several of his teammates. Hrdina backhanded a pass to the wide-open Lemieux who scored in the wide-open far side of the net.
"They weren't little mistakes," said Kolzig, who sat patiently after the game, answering wave after wave of questions. "A little mistake is one we recover from ... These are some things we need to eliminate. We need to make sure we stick to Jagr and Lemieux like fly paper and eliminate those chances."
Maybe no one felt worse than Halpern, who had scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 4 that tied the series. His frustration was still apparent in the locker room.
"We [stunk] for a shift and they got two goals and we never came back," he blurted.
On the ice, the misery came to a head at the end of the game, when he joined in a free-for-all with Steve Konowalchuk and teammate Trevor Linden against Jagr and Darius Kasparaitis, with whom he'd had run-ins with throughout the game.
When the officials finally sorted it out, everyone but Halpern received 10-minute misconduct penalties. Halpern was handed a 10-minute game-misconduct and a five-minute major penalty for spearing.
The Halpern penalties were forwarded to league headquarters last night, where it will be determined if further punishment will be handed out.
The two quick Pittsburgh goals somewhat deflated the sellout crowd of 18,672, but the Capitals kept pressing, trying to get on the scoreboard. In the first period alone, the Caps had four or five really good chances.
But Chris Simon, the Caps leading goal scorer last season, hit a post. Peter Bondra, who has two power-play goals in the series, had two good chances, but one veered just wide and the other was denied by Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg, who made 21 saves. Adam Oates, whose playing time increased to 16 minutes after playing a series-low nine minutes in Game 4, had a good chance on a power play, but shot it directly at Hedberg.
When defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored a power-play goal at the halfway point of the second period to bring the Caps within one, it energized Washington. The Caps pressed hard, turning Penguin power plays into scoring chances of their own. But as hard as they tried, they could not tie the game.
"For us, this was Game 7," said Jagr. "We had to close the door or we would be in big trouble."
Now, it is the Caps who are facing trouble. Capitals general manager George McPhee came away from a management huddle with a shrug of his shoulders.
"We just have to win," he said. "We just have to keep doing the same things. This team is playing as hard as it can. Tonight, there was 31 seconds that made the difference in the game.
"So, we're just going to have to do it the hard way and win Games 6 and 7."
Pittsburgh 2 0 0 -- 2
Washington 0 1 0 -- 1
First period -- 1, Pittsburgh, Ference 1 (Jagr, Lemieux), 6:35. 2, Pittsburgh, Lemieux 3, (Hrdina, Ference, 7:06. Penalties -- Jagr, Pit (high- sticking), 1:08; Kovalev, Pit (boarding), 15:03; Linden, Was (roughing), 20:00. Second period -- 3, Washington, Gonchar 1 (Halpern, Linden), 10:01 (pp). Penalties -- Moran, Pit (holding stick), 9:41; Johansson, Was (roughing), 11:23; Klee, Was (slashing), 14:32. Third period -- None. Penalties -- Jagr, Pit, misconduct, 20:00; Kasparaitis, Pit, misconduct, 20:00; Halpern, Was, major-game misconduct (spearing), 20:00; Konowalchuk, Was, misconduct, 20:00; Linden, Was, misconduct, 20:00. Shots on goal -- Pittsburgh 7-10-1--18. Washington 7-7-8--22. Power-play opportunities -- Pittsburgh 0 of 3; Washington 1 of 3. Goalies -- Pittsburgh, Hedberg 3-2 (22 shots-21 saves). Washington, Kolzig 2-3 (18-16). A -- 18,672 (18,672).