PITTSBURGH, FEB. 2 -- Mario Lemieux's 50th goal of the season, with 49 seconds remaining in sudden-death overtime, nullified a gallant comeback effort by the Washington Capitals tonight.
Lemieux scored on a breakaway, taking Lee Giffin's pass and beating goalie Pete Peeters with a backhander, to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory and within one point of Washington in the nerve-racking Patrick Division race.
The Capitals and New York Islanders share second place with 54 points, four behind Philadelphia. Pittsburgh and New Jersey are tied for fourth with 53.
The Capitals, blanked by rookie goalie Frank Pietrangelo for 57 minutes, had battled back to a 2-2 tie on goals by Yvon Corriveau and Dave Christian. Corriveau's fifth ended Pietrangelo's shutout bid with 2:41 on the clock and Christian's 25th evened it with 35 seconds left in regulation time, after Peeters had been removed for a sixth skater.
The decisive goal was set up by a poor Washington line change, enabling Lemieux to break down the left-wing boards, take Giffin's rinkwide pass and put an effective deke on Peeters.
Lemieux, who has registered at least one point in 17 straight games, leads the NHL with 109 points, 16 more than Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky.
"That was a big win for us and scoring the winning goal makes me very happy," Lemieux said. "It's a good way to hit 50 and it brought back some memories. I got my first NHL goal against Peeters when he was with Boston and I did it on the same move."
The play began with Larry Murphy heading for the Washington bench and Kevin Hatcher jumping on. Before Murphy got off the ice, he kicked the puck toward the Pittsburgh zone, where it was grabbed by Paul Coffey. Coffey sent it across to Giffin and, with Hatcher caught up ice, Lemieux broke free.
"I was standing near their bench and, when I saw the way they were changing, I knew they were in trouble," Lemieux said. "But I was surprised to be alone. I got the puck at the blue line from Lee Giffin and then it was just me and the goalie."
Hatcher said, "I jumped on the ice and then Larry kicked the puck toward Coffey. For a moment there, we had six men on the ice and I didn't want us to get a penalty, so I tried to get into the play. I got caught a little too high and I tried to get back, but the pass went right under my stick."
Coach Bryan Murray reflected the Capitals' sudden emotional turn as he stalked outside the dressing room, saying, "I don't even want to think how many times we've gotten ourselves in trouble that way. We dump and change and I think everybody thought we had the puck, but we didn't and they took advantage of a scramble right at our door.
"That was our biggest problem all night, between the top of the circle and the red line. We kept turning the puck over and they'd regroup and attack again."
Lemieux's first-period power-play goal, which caromed off Peeters' stick as Lemieux swept out from behind, was the only score of the first two periods.
Dave Hunter, the brother of the Capitals' Dale, made it 2-0 early in the third period when he picked off a Bill Houlder pass and sent the puck between Peeters' legs from 30 feet out.
With Pietrangelo making some remarkable stops, the game seemed destined to end that way, until the Capitals suddenly quieted the 15,054 fans.
Pietrangelo blocked a shot from the left point by Stevens, but the rebound popped in front, struck the back of Corriveau's skate as he was turning and skidded into the net.
The fans saluted Pietrangelo, who said, "I was definitely thinking shutout. With five minutes left, you've got to be thinking about it. But I figured, at least we're winning."
That situation abruptly changed, with Washington's six skaters pressing hard in the final minute. Hatcher made an outstanding play to prevent Ville Siren from clearing the puck and it eventually came to Michal Pivonka in the right-wing circle. He wisely fed it rinkwide to Christian, who was alone on the left side and whipped it between Pietrangelo's legs.
The Capitals, who had beaten Philadelphia in overtime Sunday, suddenly had a chance to do it again, but fate and Lemieux decreed otherwise.
Lemieux, who estimated that he played between 33 and 34 minutes, stepped off the ice only once during the 4 minutes 11 seconds of overtime and he was back out in time to win it.
"It would have been very disappointing to end in a tie," said Pietrangelo, one of the few Canadians ever to play for the University of Minnesota. "Instead, this was a great way to win it. It's great for us and great for our fans. They've been good and they just want a winner."
Murray said, "It's so disappointing, to put on a big rally at the end, do everything you want to and then let it get away."
Washington 0 0 2 0 2 Pittsburgh 1 0 1 1 3
FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Pittsburgh, Lemieux 49 (Siren, Coffey), 10:55 (pp). PENALTIES -- Gartner, Was (hooking), 3:31; Stevens, Was (hooking), 9:04; Johnson, Pit (hooking), 14:10; Gould, Was (high-sticking), 17:08; Simmer, Pit (high-sticking), 17:08; Langway, Was (cross-checking), 19:46.
SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- None. PENALTIES -- Dave Hunter, Pit (holding), 2:49; Quinn, Pit (cross-checking), 6:05; Franceschetti, Was (tripping), 9:15; Cunneyworth, Pit (slashing), 12:16.
THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 2, Pittsburgh, Dave Hunter 12, 2:14. 3, Washington, Corriveau 5 (Stevens), 17:19. 4, Washington, Christian 25 (Pivonka, Franceschetti), 19:25. PENALTIES -- Loney, Pit (holding), 4:42; Murphy, Was (roughing), 8:11; Cunneyworth, Pit (roughing), 8:11; Sundstrom, Was (slashing), 12:34.
OVERTIME -- 5, Pittsburgh, Lemieux 50 (Giffin, Coffey), 4:11. PENALTIES -- None.
Shots on goal: Washington 9 11 7 1 28 Pittsburgh 12 13 8 2 35
Power-play Opportunities -- Washington 0 of 5; Pittsburgh 1 of 5.
Goalies -- Washington, Peeters (35 shots-32 saves). Pittsburgh, Pietrangelo (28-26).
A -- 15,054.
Referee -- Mike Noeth. Linesmen -- Gord Broseker, Pat Dapuzzo.