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 Haunted by bizarre playoff games, the Caps once again played their "longest game."
 For Tony Kornheiser, it was the same old story of choking dogs.
 The Caps were left wondering about the play of Jim Carey.
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  Without a Full Deck, Capitals Had to Fold
By Len Hochberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 5, 1996; Page D14

Krygier score
A 6-4 victory in Game 1 had the Caps feeling good, but it didn't last. (John McDonnell/Post File Photo)
It wound up like many other NHL playoff series for the Washington Capitals: They had a big lead only to see the other team -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, as usual -- move to the next round. But this time the collapse was not so stark. Heck, the Capitals weren't even supposed to be in position to collapse -- and, if not for their own resolve, they wouldn't have been.

In the first-round affair, which ended with Game 6 last Sunday, the Capitals won two contests in Pittsburgh, then dropped the next four.

The Penguins "became more aware," Coach Jim Schoenfeld said last week amid the Capitals' season-ending meetings -- aware that the injury-laden Capitals could still win the series. Like most playoff matchups in any sport, this one revolved around the better team: When the Penguins played poorly, they lost; when they played well, they won.

"But the lesser team can do things to prevent the greater team from playing the best of its ability," Capitals assistant coach Keith Allain said.

For two games, that may have been so, "but if both combatants play at their highest level," Schoenfeld said, "the better combatant will win."

Game 1: Many hockey people expected this series to be a blowout, and after only three minutes the high-octane Penguins led, 2-0, on two goals by Petr Nedved (who finished with a series-high six). "They had a 2-0 lead early in five of the six games," Capitals General Manager David Poile said.

With 57 minutes left, it seemed time for the Civic Arena announcer to say: "Thanks for coming, drive home safely." And if not then, then certainly midway through the second period, when the Penguins took a 4-1 bulge and chased goaltender Jim Carey in favor of Olaf Kolzig.

But the Capitals battled back, tying the score in the third on Sergei Gonchar's goal and going ahead on Todd Krygier's. Michal Pivonka's empty-netter completed a five-goal surge, and the Capitals had a stunning 6-4 triumph.

"You get up 4-1 in the first game and you think you're going to blow them out," Penguins Coach Ed Johnston said. ". . . We know that every time we play them they don't give up. They don't quit."

Not only did the Penguins quit in Game 1, they did it again two nights later.

Game 2: This was almost a replay of the opener, as the Penguins took a 2-0 lead against Kolzig on goals by Nedved and Chris Joseph. "Nedved surprised us," Capitals defenseman Mark Tinordi said. "He scored a little bit more than we thought. We thought [Jaromir] Jagr was the main one" on the line with Ron Francis.

Jagr would have been more prominent, except Tinordi played hockey's best one-on-one player as well as possible throughout the series.

After the Capitals tied it on Pat Peake's two power-play goals, Nedved scored again. Once more, the Capitals rallied, going ahead on Peter Bondra's power-play goal in another stirring triumph, 5-3.

"We were up 2-0," said Kolzig, "but it's playoff hockey. You have to win four games and we were only halfway there. We weren't in the clear by any means."

Game 3: "We stopped cheating, stopped leaving our zone ahead of the play," Johnston said. ". . . I think that changed the whole mood" of the series.

Mario Lemiuex also changed. With Carey back in goal, Lemieux had four assists in the Penguins' 4-1 win at USAir Arena. "That was Mario's game," Allain said. "\. . . That was the one game that we certainly deserved to lose."

Lemieux was a coach on the ice, directing players what to do, congratulating them when they did well, offering encouragement when they messed up. Seemingly, after two embarrassing losses at home, hockey's greatest player said: Enough is enough.

"I wouldn't underestimate what you just said," Poile said.

Game 4: A game for the ages -- not to mention four overtimes and 6 1/2 hours. This was the one time the Capitals took an early lead. It was 1-0 after Pivonka beat Tom Barrasso in the first period. Then Barrasso left with back spasms, and Bondra made it 2-0 against Ken Wregget in the second. At that juncture, Pivonka and Bondra each had three goals. Neither would score again, as Wregget became a focal point of the series.

Kolzig, back in net, later yielded Jagr's first, shorthanded, then Nedved's fifth, on a power play. Off to overtime they went.

After the Penguins outshot the Capitals, 42-21, in regulation time, the Capitals held a 42-23 edge in the extra 79 minutes 15 seconds.

Late in the second overtime, the Capitals' Joe Juneau took the first OT penalty shot in NHL history. He shot right into Wregget.

"I can't blame Joe Juneau for that," Schoenfeld said. "At that stage in the game, the ice was so bad." Besides, as assistant coach Tod Button said, "we had chances before that, we had chances after that."

At 2:15 in the morning, 45 seconds from a fifth overtime, Nedved wristed a shot from the left circle past Tinordi . . . and Francis . . . and Gonchar . . . and Jagr . . . and, finally, Kolzig, who didn't move a muscle, for he still hasn't seen that puck.

The third-longest game in NHL history was done and, while they didn't know it at the time, so were the Capitals. Instead of a 3-1 lead, they were even.

"We gave them life," said Bondra. "If we won the game they would be down even deeper -- and I thought it would be easy for us to steal the whole series. And it was the opposite way. They scored a goal and realized they could win the whole series."

Game 5: The Kolzig veneer wore off, as the Penguins won, 4-1, with Lemieux getting his first goal to provide a 1-0 lead after one. "I thought the best first period we had in Pittsburgh was Game 5," said Schoenfeld.

"What happens, though," said Poile, "is we don't score to balance that. We don't support our good play, our hard work with results. And that weighs on you at some point in the series, at some point in the game, where you end up not winning."

By now, the Penguins had stopped Bondra and Pivonka cold. Earlier in the series, Pittsburgh had matched the Lemieux line against them, forcing the Capitals' top scorers to concentrate more on defense.

"It was harder to play, not just for me but for everyone," Bondra said. ". . . I'm not for looking for an excuse. We have to bury those goals, especially myself. But [Wregget] stopped a few good shots."

"That's why you need other people then to fill the void," Schoenfeld said.

Even though the Capitals got back three injured players, Steve Konowalchuk, Keith Jones and Craig Berube, they lost two more, Peake and Juneau.

Game 6: In a must-win game, the very shaky Carey was back.

"The big part of my thinking with Jim was the play of Ken Wregget," Schoenfeld said. "I thought we might need a one-goal game or a shutout to beat these guys. Now, as well as Olie had played in the series, he's never had a National League shutout. And we scored six and five in the first two [games, which Kolzig won]. . . . The best chance we had of getting a shutout performance or a one-goal game, I thought, was the guy that's done it. [Carey] had nine shutouts."

Six minutes in, Carey was on the bench, down 2-0 after two Penguins power-play goals. The Capitals lost, 3-2.

"We wanted to get the first goal to take the crowd out of the game," Schoenfeld said -- a remarkable statement because the game was at USAir Arena. ". . . They're pretty vocal. They come from Pittsburgh."

The Capitals' most important game of the season, at home, was not sold out.

Epilogue: The Capitals scored six goals in the first game, five in the second, six in the last four. Their power play, 4 for 11 in Games 1 and 2, went 3 for 31 thereafter. "We made a little wrinkle change in our power play where the low play worked [with Peake's two goals in Game 2] and they adjusted to it, which they're going to do," Schoenfeld said. "Then we started to generate chances from point shots, but they didn't go in the net. So, to simplify it, I would say the fact that we were able to score early in the series and not late became a real big problem for us."

Part of that was the Penguins deciding to play defense, especially on Bondra and Pivonka; part of that was Wregget; part of that was losing Peake and Juneau; part of that was the other Capitals' injuries. Defensemen Calle Johansson, Joe Reekie and Brendan Witt never made it back for the series. Konowalchuk and Jones, the Capitals' Nos. 2 and 3 goal scorers, did come back but weren't at their best. "Take away Jagr and Francis from them, see what happens," said Schoenfeld.

The fact that Konowalchuk and Jones are to the Capitals what Jagr and Francis are to the Penguins tells you all you need to know about these teams.

"We can't run away from it -- we need more balance on our scoring," Poile said. "Now we have a big-time scorer [Bondra]. Now we have to add to it."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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