PITTSBURGH, JAN. 29 -- The Washington Capitals were the out-of-town guests at Mario Lemieux's coming-home party tonight at the Civic Arena. They proved to be gracious visitors by giving away the game. The Pittsburgh Penguins gladly accepted a gift in regulation before winning, 3-2, in overtime.
Most of the 16,164 on hand waved placards that read simply "MARIO," welcoming him back as he played his first home game since March 31 -- and since back surgery.
And this would have been a Penguins loss but for terrible mistakes by defensemen Calle Johansson and Al Iafrate that led directly to the Penguins' two regulation-time goals, which erased a 2-0 Capitals lead. Lemieux, who assisted on the first one, scored the second. Paul Stanton then won the game with a slapshot through traffic with 2:14 left in overtime.
"It's the same damn thing -- giveaways," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said, fuming. "If we don't stop beating ourselves pretty soon, we're going to find ourselves in a lot of trouble."
The Capitals are in fifth place in the Patrick Division and hoped to use Sunday's overtime victory over Detroit to begin a run of victories. They were playing a Penguins team that had won 15 of its last 20. But the Capitals kept the league's highest-scoring outfit in check. They just could not put the Penquins away, wasting many opportunities, so the mistakes were magnified.
"We had a couple bad breaks early," said Penguins goalie Wendell Young, who gave up two goals to the Capitals' Kelly Miller in the first four minutes of the first period, but recovered to play an excellent game. "You just want to keep the team in the game." He said Capitals goalie Don Beaupre "played a hell of a game for them. With Mario, it's just a matter of time."
The Capitals are just one point behind their pace of last season after 53 games, but since they qualified for the playoffs in only the 78th game, it shouldn't necessarily be taken as a good sign. They will try again Thursday on Long Island.
Tonight they started splendidly. Mike Ridley took a draw to the left of Young. The puck flipped back, but Miller stepped in from the slot and lifted a backhander over Young's glove hand for a 1-0 lead with just 1:07 gone.
The crowd went from surprised to annoyed just a few minutes later. With Mikhail Tatarinov in the penalty box, the Penguins were up a man. But Ridley and Miller carried up the ice two-on-two.
With Paul Coffey continuing to back up, Ridley left a drop pass for Miller, whose quick shot beat Young for his 14th goal, fourth in two games, for a 2-0 lead with just 3:40 elapsed. It was the seventh shorthanded goal for the Capitals and the second for Miller.
But still in the first, Johansson had the puck in the circle to Beaupre's right. He froze when, he said, he thought referee Paul Stewart was right in front of him. His clearing pass was intercepted by Mark Recchi, who fed Bob Errey, who went to Lemieux. Beaupre shifted and had no chance when Lemieux went back to Errey for the goal.
"I just got cement in my hands," Johansson said.
The Capitals wasted a bundle of chances. The best was late in the first period, when Dimitri Khristich sent Dino Ciccarelli in on a breakaway that Young stopped with a glove save.
The Capitals killed four straight penalties and clung to a 2-1 lead as the clock ticked down in the third period. But again, another foulup cost the Capitals.
Iafrate's pass hit Lemieux's leg and caromed to Jaromir Jagr. Beaupre stopped Jagr's shot from the slot, but Lemieux was right there for the rebound to make it 2-2 with 5:21 left in regulation. Stanton then won it with a shot off a feed from Scott Young.
Johansson's assessment on his hands seemed correct but so too was he when he said: "We got two quick goals, but two isn't enough against this team."