Capitals Coach Bryan Murray called it a "real achievement," and in a way, that's what Washington's 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins was last night at Capital Centre.
The victory left the Capitals four points ahead of the Penguins in the National Hockey League's Patrick Division, extended their unbeaten-at-home streak to seven and paid back the visitors for an unartistic 7-5 defeat in October.
"We've had trouble with this club in the past," Murray said. "Earlier this year we went into their building when they weren't at full strength and lost a shootout. And looked awful doing it. So for us, this was a real achievement, beating them and knowing they're in a rat race with us for a playoff spot."
The Penguins had taken the early lead, on Mike Bullard's goal with three seconds left in the first period. But after a disorganized effort during the first 20 minutes, the Capitals returned to score three consecutive goals, Greg Theberge's on a power play. Pittsburgh's Doug Shedden brought the score to 3-2, but Mike Gartner and Craig Laughlin came back to give Washington a 5-2 edge midway through the third.
"Once again we tried to sit on the lead and it didn't work for us," Gartner said later about Pittsburgh rallying with late goals by Peter Lee and Bullard, who had missed 20 games with mononucleosis.
"We've got to realize we can't go into a shell and have to continue playing with two men in (the zone) and one back. They (Pittsburgh) were attacking the blueline and it just wasn't working for us."
While the Capitals watched their lead dwindle from a three-goal advantage to a one-goal scare, Pittsburgh spent the last period hustling for a tie.
On the game's final faceoff, down in front of Al Jensen, Doug Jarvis won the draw, but was surrounded by Pittsburgh players, struggling to control the puck and get one last shot at Jensen, whose glove hand kept the Capitals out of trouble more than once last night.
"Al's a real battler," Murray said. "I thought he overplayed the puck a little much on one goal, but he's so aggressive and enthused about playing, and it's so contagious, I give him full credit."
Jensen had stopped the puck in the second period, before it became Pittsburgh's second goal, when Paul Baxter struck it at him and he tried to send it aside, aided by Brian Engblom. But Shedden, standing in the crease, tapped it by him before he could react.
On Lee's third-period goal that brought the score to 5-3, Jensen had come out to erase the angle. But Lee threaded the Washington defense and sent the puck into the side of the cage at 12:30.
Jensen was ready for other Penguin tries, however, gloving everything that came in his direction.
But if the goaltending has been consistent, the Capitals' power play has a few kinks to work out. Asked about it, Gartner joked, "Don't you know we won the game? These should be positive questions."
However, Gartner admitted he has no real solution for the sporadic output of the power-play unit. "Maybe we have to change personnel, or the way we're doing a few things," he said. "One main thing, when we lose the puck, we're not hustling enough to get it right back."
In six manpower-advantage chances, the Capitals had only Theberge's second-period goal.
Murray has been working the power-play units overtime, hoping to see a well-balanced group take charge when the Capitals are handed an opportunity.
He conceded that before Saturday's game with visiting Chicago, "Some things will have to be worked out and obviously the power play is one of them."