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 Scotty Bowman's defensive changes in Game 5 proved to be critical.
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 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  Season Crashes Down on Capitals
By Dave Sell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 1992; Page G01


Capitals Logo In a bitter, ironic end to a season full of goals, the Washington Capitals were eliminated from the 1992 NHL playoffs by the same team and in the same fashion as a year ago when they couldn't score to save their hockey souls.

With Mario Lemieux once again leading the way with a goal and an assist, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins shut down the Capitals' attack and beat them, 3-1, to win the seventh and deciding game in this Patrick Division semifinal series in front of 17,783 at Capital Centre.

The Penguins became just the 11th team (although third in two days) since 1939 to overcome a 3-1 deficit and win a seven-game series. The Capitals also are among the 11, having beaten Philadelphia in 1988. But the year before, the Capitals did as they did last night, losing when they thought they should have won.

"I never thought I would be standing up here to face the music after leading 3-1," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said. "Special teams were our downfall. It was something we relied on all season."

While the Capitals head for the first tee, the Penguins move on to the division finals to face the New York Rangers, beginning Sunday at Madison Square Garden. The overall regular season and Patrick Division winners, the Rangers advanced by beating New Jersey, 8-4, last night in Game 7 of their series.

It was in the division finals last season that the Penguins held the Capitals to three goals in the final three games as they overcame a Game 1 loss to win the series, 4-1.

"I felt that way during the game," Capitals goalie Don Beaupre said of the ironic conclusion. "It was the same game as the last few games of the series last year. Not high scoring. It was tight checking and they sat back and didn't play wide open and next thing you know they win. I thought it was deja vu, I really did."

What Murray and his counterpart, Scotty Bowman, agreed on was that the Penguins' victory at Capital Centre in Game 5 was the turning point in the series. In that contest, the Penguins played a patient, defensive style that threw the Capitals for a loop from which they never emerged.

Bowman went to the Hall of Fame preaching such a defensive style, but his confidence that the team could come back was based on one of the most talented offensive players ever to earn a buck in this sport.

"You always feel pretty good when you've got Mario Lemieux on your side," Bowman said with a smile. His team also had some help from several thousand Penguins fans in the arena.

As Murray said, special teams were the difference. Lemieux scored a shorthanded goal in the first period. Al Iafrate scored at even strength against Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso to bring the Capitals back to a 1-1 tie early in the second period, but Lemieux then found Jaromir Jagr open for a power-play and game-winning goal with 10:20 left in the second period.

Joe Mullen scored into an empty net with 33 seconds remaining for the final margin.

Murray juggled lines hoping to do two things when the teams were at even strength: stop or at least inhibit Lemieux and to generate more offense. The first goal was met, but the second was not.

The Capitals managed to put only 19 shots on the Penguins' net.

As soon as the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff, Dave Tippett replaced Dino Ciccarelli on a line with Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller. The Tippett-Ridley-Miller trio became the checking unit and Miller spent much of the night on Lemieux's hip. It was successful, insofar as the Penguins did not score an even-strength goal until Mullen's empty-netter. And it was Miller and Ridley who had the assists on Iafrate's goal.

The other two lines had the task of providing offense and came up very short. Michal Pivonka's line, which included Peter Bondra and Todd Krygier, stayed intact but didn't do much. The same was true of Dale Hunter's line with Ciccarelli and Dimitri Khristich.

"I'm not going to bash anybody," Murray said. "They had a terrific year. I know a lot is tainted by not winning the series, but I couldn't ask for anything more in the regular season."

In Game 6, the Penguins gave up a 2-0 lead and the Capitals returned a 4-2 edge, so the first goal last night didn't figure to be crucial. So, although the Capitals drew even, the Penguins remained patient.

With Troy Loney in the penalty box, Ridley hit the inside of a goal post. The Penguins collected the puck and Lemieux carried it into the Capitals' zone. Iafrate and Kevin Hatcher were back. Lemieux moved to the middle and left a drop pass for Ron Francis.

Iafrate correctly stayed with Francis, who then shot. Beaupre stopped the shot, but Hatcher was not close enough to Lemieux and the rebound came right to him. Beaupre had no shot and the Penguins led, 1-0, with 5:59 left in the first period.

"It's exactly what we talked about yesterday," Hatcher said of the pregame plan to stick with Lemieux. "I guess I could have been a little closer, but it's a tough play with Mario."

The Capitals never managed to consistently apply pressure to the slow Penguins defensemen, who avoided the contact by dumping the puck out of the zone instead of carrying it. When Miller did make contact with Gordie Roberts, Ridley collected the turnover and fed Iafrate. After catching the deflected pass, Iafrate scored for a 1-1 tie with 24 seconds gone in the second period.

The Capitals avoided bad penalties, but the Penguins got the game-winner on the one penalty Washington did take. With Hatcher and Calle Johansson caught behind the net, Lemieux found Jagr open in front for a 2-1 lead with 10:20 left.

After that, the Penguins simply pulled back further into their shell, rarely sending a second forechecker at the Capitals, icing the puck whenever necessary and enjoying every last minute of the victory.

"Maybe," Khristich said, "we believe in ourselves too much after the fourth game."

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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