Penguins 3, Capitals 2
-- This hockey game was billed as a confrontation of extremely gifted individuals, an anomaly for the ultimate team sport.
Washington Capitals superstar Jaromir Jagr was facing his mentor, Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux, for the first time at Mellon Arena tonight. The game marked Jagr's return to the city where he won two Stanley Cups.
Lemieux, the NHL's top scorer after missing nearly all of last season with health problems, lived up to his hype scoring a goal and assisting on another in Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory, but Jagr could not produce against his former team, with no points and a plus/minus of minus-1.
Jagr has just one goal in five games against Pittsburgh, is a minus-6 defensively and was booed each time he touched the puck. He had eight shots on goal in 29 minutes of ice time.
"He's such a great player, you have to watch his every move," Lemieux said of Jagr. "You just try to stay as close to him as you can."
Lemieux, meantime, continued his strong play against Washington, with 50 goals and 100 points -- in 59 career games.
"He's a great player, but I think we give a little too much respect," Capitals center Jeff Halpern said. "We play against other great players and other teams and we play hard and in your face. We can't give him as much respect as we do."
The first period again told the story for Washington, which finished its eight-game trip 3-4-1 with the loss. The Capitals yielded the opening goal for the seventh time in nine games and allowed a quick power play goal, something they've done in every game (including delayed power play goals).
It began about six minutes in, when Peter Bondra lost the puck with the Capitals (4-4-1) on the power play. Shean Donovan darted down the wing, took a soft wrist shot and beat backup goalie Craig Billington, who got the starting call when Olaf Kolzig hurt his hand at the morning skate.
Pittsburgh added a power-play goal less than 10 minutes later (it is scoring on roughly 25 percent of its chances). Lemieux, the NHL's all-time leader in points per game, extended his scoring streak to eight games, firing a pass to Aleksey Morozov in the slot. Billington stopped that one-timer but Alexei Kovalev swept the rebound past his stick, netting a goal in his sixth straight game.
Washington promptly got caught with too many men on the ice, giving the Penguins a pristine opportunity to put the game away. Mike Grier and Dainius Zubrus drew consecutive penalties while skating shorthanded, however, and gave the Capitals the man advantage.
But the extended power play -- first a four-on-three and then a five-on-three -- produced nothing against Pittsburgh's weak penalty killers, continuing a recent and unexpected slump (0 for 18, 0 for 7 tonight).
The Capitals, who have gone eight straight games without scoring more than two goals, were content to remain on the periphery and caused no deflections or second-chance shots, making life easy for goalie Johan Hedberg, who was superb (40 saves).
"We got out-goaltended and we got outplayed on special team," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That was the difference. There's your ballgame."
Said Hedberg: "Every time the puck was bouncing around the crease [Jagr] was there. I just tried to stay in front of him."
Lemieux, 37, was not on the ice for the start of the second period after taking a puck to the face (that led to 25 stitches in his upper lip), and the Capitals struck once with him absent. Bondra fired a nasty slapshot through the legs of defenseman Ian Moran and under Hedberg's arm. Lemieux restored the two-goal lead four minutes after emerging from the dressing room with a stitched lip, slamming a one-timer off the crossbar and in for his first goal in six games.
The Capitals floundered, giving the puck away in their own crease. All of the ghosts that haunt them in this building -- Washington had won twice here in the last seven years and suffered countless playoff setbacks -- were up to their old tricks.
"There's a little bit of frustration on our part," Grier said. "The last few games we've outplayed teams, but we can't get the puck to go in for us."
Halpern, a Potomac native who grew up hating the Penguins and never really stopped, is one of the few Capitals immune to such taunts, relishing the chance to confront his enemy. He scored off a rebound with 6.8 seconds left in the second period to make it a one-goal game and restore his team's confidence.
The Capitals fed off that goal, dominating the third period, and Jagr had an open net with three seconds left, but failed to get the puck over Hedberg as time expired and the fans shouted for him to go home.