The Washington Capitals' second-place insurance policy disappeared last night when Pat Boutette's goal with 19 seconds left enabled the Pittsburgh Penguins to pull out a 4-4 tie before 13,775 at Capital Centre.
Boutette netted his 26th goal after Pittsburgh lifted goaltender Michel Dion for a sixth skater and prevented Washington from clearing the zone following an icing violation by Rod Langway.
Rick Kehoe had cut Washington's lead to one goal with 2:49 remaining when Langway and goalie Pat Riggin became entangled, leaving Kehoe with a shot at an empty net.
The Capitals, unbeaten in their last seven games, visit the New York Rangers tonight. Washington now leads the third-place New York Islanders by two points, with the teams set for a showdown at the Centre on Wednesday. Should the Islanders win that game and their other three remaining contests, they would finish second no matter what the Capitals do in their other three games.
"It was a very costly point--maybe," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We were in command most of the game and then a couple of brutal mistakes hurt us. The mixup on the third goal was bad enough, but the fourth one was terrible. We win the faceoff and they wind up getting the goal."
Adding to the Capitals' discomfiture was a bruised left thigh that will keep winger Bengt Gustafsson out of action tonight. Gustafsson, who had missed Thursday's game against New Jersey because of a strained back, was hauled down in the third period by Pittsburgh's Ron Meighan, with referee Wally Harris declining to call a penalty despite the Capitals' protests.
Glen Currie, Dennis Maruk, Doug Jarvis and Bob Carpenter scored for Washington, with Carpenter's 50-footer at 10:35 of the third period boosting the Capitals into a 4-2 lead after a breakaway score by Peter Lee had brought Pittsburgh within one.
The Penguins seemed to be playing out the last few minutes of what would have been their 51st defeat when Kehoe scored his goofy goal. Greg Malone had batted the puck into the Washington end and Langway, pursuing it toward the net, bumped into Riggin, who was coming out to try to smother it. That left Kehoe with an empty-net chip shot.
Suddenly, the Penguins came alive and it took an excellent play by defenseman Brian Engblom to smother a close-range shot by Doug Shedden after Mike Gartner gave up the puck in the Capitals' zone.
Pittsburgh replaced Dion with a minute left and called a timeout after Langway iced the puck with 27 seconds remaining. Jarvis won the ensuing faceoff at Riggin's left, but Malone prevented Langway from sending the puck out of the zone. Malone passed to Kehoe in the slot and he sent a roller under Engblom's stick to Boutette, who shoveled it into the net.
It was the third time this month the Capitals gave up a goal in the last minute after an opponent had pulled its goalie.
Until the late collapse, it was a pleasant evening for the Capitals and their fans, with the only real sour note furnished by the absence of a shot on goal while Washington was blessed with a two-man advantage for 58 seconds.
A brawl at 12:27 of the first period provided a couple of memorable sights. Usually mild-mannered Alan Haworth delivered such a devastating barrage of right hands to the face of Pittsburgh tough guy Paul Baxter that Randy Carlyle felt compelled to come to Baxter's aid, although he assured himself of a game misconduct as the third man in the altercation.
While Haworth was pounding the man who led the NHL in penalties last season, usual noncombatant Milan Novy was pinning Penguin Peter Lee to the ice.
"He cross-checked me and punched me in front of the net and I'd just had enough," said Haworth, who played despite a sore hip.
Rookie Scott Stevens, who squared off with Baxter after Carlyle grabbed Haworth, later earned a clear-cut decision over Baxter himself. Then, when the two menaced each other a third time, Harris motioned them to the exits. Stevens' 25 minutes in penalties gave him 193 for the season.
Carpenter's goal, his 30th of the season, came with Pittsburgh's Tony Feltrin off for hooking. It was the 104th power-play goal yielded by the Penguins, adding to their NHL single-season record.
Afterward, the Capitals returned defenseman Paul MacKinnon to the Hershey farm club. Randy Holt, suspended the last two games, will be back in uniform tonight.