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Washington Ends on a Losing Note

Pittsburgh, Meantime, Closes Well: Penguins 4, Capitals 3

Associated Press
Monday, April 5, 2004; Page D07

PITTSBURGH, April 4 -- The Pittsburgh Penguins had only one regret after ending one of the worst seasons in their 37-year history: They wish they could play another month or two.

Lasse Pirjeta scored two goals and the Penguins, despite finishing last in the NHL standings for the first time since 1984, ended their late-season surge by beating the Washington Capitals, 4-3, Sunday in the season finale for both teams.

Pittsburgh's Dan Focht watches shot by teammate Milan Kraft elude Washington goalie Matt Yeats for game-winning goal late in third period. (Keith Srakocic -- AP)

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After losing 18 straight games, the longest streak in league history but not a record, the Penguins went 12-5-3 -- the greatest turnaround by an NHL team in any season following a winless streak of 15 games or longer.

The Penguins also were 6-0-2 in their final eight home games after going 0-15-1 during a franchise-record, 16-game home winless streak. That run included a league-record 14-game losing streak.

Pittsburgh (23-47-8-4) also had one of their best season-ending, 20-game streaks in their 37-year history. Only in 1992-93, when their final 20 games included a league-record 17-game winning streak, did they get more than 27 points in the final quarter of a season.

Pirjeta, an unproductive player in Columbus until being dealt for Brian Holzinger at the trade deadline, helped lead the late turnaround with six goals in his final eight games, including a pair of two-goal games.

"We know it's going to be the same core group of guys the next few years, so it's definitely encouraging to play this well to end the season," rookie defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

The Penguins have a 48.2 percent chance of winning Tuesday's lottery and getting the first pick in the NHL draft -- almost certainly, Russian star Alexander Ovechkin. The last-place team hasn't won the lottery since 1997. Chicago finished second and has an 18.8 percent chance; the Capitals were third and have a 14.2 percent chance.

Pittsburgh traded up to get the first pick last season, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and could become one of only three teams in the last 30 years to draft No. 1 overall in consecutive seasons.

"It [the closing stretch] has been great, but everyone wanted us to finish last, too, so I guess everybody is happy -- except us," Ryan Malian said. "Obviously, you want to be in the playoffs."

After the game, the Penguins' Eddie Olczyk was given a standing ovation by the near-sellout crowd.

"We've laid the foundation and now we've got to take the next step," Olczyk said. "Sometimes we had to look past our performance . . . but we stuck to our plan and the young players got to play."

Milan Kraft scored the winning goal on a one-timer from the slot with 2 minutes 38 seconds remaining, less than 90 seconds after the Capitals' Jeff Halpern stole the puck off defenseman Eric Jackson's stick in front of the Penguins net to set up Brian Willis's easy goal.

Matt Bradley, who set up Kraft's goal, earlier put the Penguins up 3-2 by scoring off Rico Fata's pass from the near boards.

Pirjeta scored in each of the first two periods off setups by Aleksey Morozov as the Penguins opened leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, only to have the Capitals tie it each time.

Asked if he was glad the season was over, Washington's Brendan Witt said, "The year, the awful year, yeah. . . . But as players we always enjoy playing, and now it's going to take a few days to sink in it's over."

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