The Washington Capitals bused over to Pittsburgh Civic Arena tonight bracing for the worst. Their opponent, the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins, had just fired a successful coach, Kevin Constantine, and shocked the hockey world by replacing him with Herb Brooks--who coached Team USA to an unthinkable gold medal at the 1980 Olympics but had not coached an NHL game since 1993.
All indications pointed to a high-scoring affair, as Brooks preached to the Penguins--a team with loads of creativity up front--to play offensive hockey. Instead, the Capitals held their explosive opponent in check but, as usual, could not find a way to score, falling 3-0 to a team they likely will battle all season for a playoff berth.
The Capitals have just 18 goals in their past nine games and were shut out for the first time on 24 saves by rookie Jean-Sebastien Aubin. The Capitals have surpassed two goals in just one of their last 11 road games--that was against the New York Islanders, the worst team in the NHL. Washington (10-12-5) is 3-9-1 on the road; five of the next six games are away from MCI Center.
"We had too many opportunities passed up early in the game," Capials Coach Ron Wilson said. "We looked to make the perfect play instead of just shooting the puck."
The Penguins, who entered the game 0-5-2 when tied after two periods, scored less than two minutes into the third period. Kip Miller stripped the puck from defenseman Alexei Tezikov behind the net and flopped on goalie Olaf Kolzig as Brad Werenka's wrist shot sailed into the net.
Jiri Slegr made it 2-0 by finishing a rush with about six minutes to play. Robert Lang scored on the power play in the final two minutes, stopping the Capitals' streak of 26 consecutive penalty kills.
The blazing start that seemed so promising never came--the teams played even for two periods--but the Penguins (9-14-3) managed to finish strong.
Washington had opportunities too. Steve Konowalchuk appeared to give the Capitals an early lead, popping a rebound into the net. But the play had been whistled dead seconds earlier when the puck was beneath Aubin. Yogi Svejkovsky came close on the power play, sneaking across the crease and backhanding the puck to goal, but Aubin managed to get his glove on the shot just before it crossed the line.
The Capitals had three early chances at a power-play goal, including overlapping power plays to start the second period. James Black ripped a slap shot and Svejkovsky whiffed on a tap in.
"Obviously the results are not what we want, but I still think we're playing good hockey," Capitals center Adam Oates said. "Obviously, we want to have more production, but we're still playing sound hockey and that's a credit to the system."
By the middle of the second period, fans in the otherwise silent arena were booing the home team. The Capitals were playing an expert road game, content to counterattack, trying to lull the Penguins into opening up.
Pittsburgh put together strong shifts at the end of the period with Jaromir Jagr hovering around the net, but the NHL's top scorer was basically a nonfactor. He was held in check by a strong team effort anchored by defensemen Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt, who were on the ice nearly every time Pittsburgh's top line was. Kolzig robbed Jagr with a falling glove save on a point-blank shot in the third period--clearly Jagr's best chance.
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Joe Reekie (bruised foot) and winger Chris Simon (sprained neck) remain out. . . . Brooks's last NHL win was April 10, 1993, when New Jersey beat the Capitals, 5-3. . . .
The Capitals have hired a full-time professional to oversee the construction and operation of a new practice facility. A site has not yet been determined. "The expectation is to have something up and running by September," General Manager George McPhee said.
CAPTION: Brendan Witt, right, catches Aleksey Morozov's attention, but Caps otherwise went quietly. They have scored more than two goals once in last 11 road games.
CAPTION: Olaf Kolzig stops Aleksey Morozov for one of his 31 saves, but Pittsburgh scored three times in the third period.