LANDOVER -- There was little more than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Pittsburgh had the lead, 5-4, and Mario Lemieux had the puck on his stick. To paraphrase Ernest Thayer, the outlook wasn't brilliant for the Washington six yesterday . . .
Next thing you knew, Dale Hunter had stripped the Penguins' star and nudged the puck in the general direction of teammate Dino Ciccarelli, closing fast on the goal from the opposite corner.
"Mario doesn't give up the puck very often [like almost never]; it was a great play by Dale," Dino was to say afterward. Not a bad effort by Ciccarelli either, his tally while being assaulted giving the Capitals a 5-5 tie.
Normally, a tie at home isn't greeted with anything approaching the enthusiasm the Caps reserved for this one. Reason for this is they trailed by two goals with less than 3:30 remaining and it was the end of a weekend that had been officially designated as the start of crunch time for the club.
Combined with the New York Rangers' 5-2 victory over New Jersey, the Caps moved to within three points of the Devils in their duel for the Patrick Division's last playoff spot. The teams collide at the Meadowlands tonight (7:45, Channel 20, WCAO) in a match Ciccarelli figures could provide the team with the push it needs to make this a successful season.
In case you haven't been paying attention, this has not been a smashing campaign for the Capitals. Fact is, they're extremely fortunate being in the Patrick, which carries the nickname See-Saw Division.
Past indiscretions are quickly forgotten, however, if a team puts together a solid stretch, squeezes into postseason play and carries just a hint of momentum into the playoffs. For instance, last year, Washington wasn't even a .500 team (36-38-6), yet had its best playoff ever.
Besides providing one of the more dynamic and perhaps important comebacks in the Caps' 1,343-game history, the game contained a month's worth of emotion, odd twists and controversy.
Indication that this wasn't to be just another Sunday afternoon skate came early, even before opening faceoff, when John Kordic, resident hitman, and his Pittsburgh counterpart Jay Caufield traded elbows at the red line during pre-game warmup. The game had been going just 74 seconds when Hunter took a poke at Scott Young and Steve Leach and Zarley Zalapski squared off.
The teams were tied after a period, Washington getting a lucky one when Mike Ridley scored an instant before the clock read :00. "We need a new system, maybe instant replay," said Penguins coach Bob Johnson, who added, "nobody really knew what happened and the call ended up being made by a linesman."
Late in the first period, Kordic and Caufield, an ex-football player from North Dakota, found they way into each other's arms and the visiting muscle gained a unanimous decision. Nary a soul in the 18,130 sellout felt the hostilities between these two was over.
The home team got the lead, 3-2, starting the second period, but Pitt tied it and, before taking the lead, it was Kordic-Caufield time again. Payback. Kordic floated like a sumo wrestler and stung like a Mack truck. He exited to a mighty roar, discarding his jersey, a la indoor soccer player Tatu.
In the context of the game, the fisticuffs didn't come across as gratuitous violence but as a case of individuals establishing beachheads for subsequent games. Johnson, though, saw it a little differently with regard to Kordic.
"Will someone please tell me what he's doing in the NHL?" the coach queried.
When it was suggested it was mainly to show off his "tomahawk" haircut, the coach said, "I guess that's as good a reply as any."
The fact remains that around a three-game suspension for "alcohol-related" reasons, the Caps are unbeaten in six games with the enforcer in uniform.
With an hour and a half in penalties called over the first two periods, the last 20 minutes promised mayhem. Instead, it was just what the fans ordered, hockey. Lemieux gave his team a two-goal lead with a fantastic one-hand lefthanded score before Peter Bondra closed the deficit to one goal with 3:25 remaining and the Hunter-Ciccarelli coup at the end of regulation.
Neither team got so much as a shot on goal in the five-minute overtime.
And just how physical were the Caps yesterday? Ask Alan May. He had just risen from the bench ready to take the ice with his Capitals linemates when Bondra scored. Nick Kypreos shot his right hand up in celebration, only it never made above the level of poor May's nose.
He was assured by Ciccarelli's that the semi-beneficial outcome of the seemingly lost game would "take the pain away," but May seemed to be having trouble buying it from behind a bag of ice pressed to his beezer.