Caps control pace, but are slowly dying


There are uphill battles and then there are situations like the one facing the Washington Capitals in their playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The American Heritage Dictionary says a long shot is "an entry, as in a horse race, with only a slight chance of winning."

Given this definition, the Caps qualify to carry the description "out-of-sight shot" heading into Game 5 tonight (7:35, Ch. 20) at the Pittsburgh Arena.

Down in games, 3-1, the Caps are at wit's end trying to figure out how to handle the Pens.

Conventional wisdom dictated it was suicidal to get into a wide open end-to-end shootout against the free wheeling Men of Mario (Lemieux). Why these guys can score quicker than a fastbreaking basketball team.

So, in three of the four games, it has been Caps hockey -- deliberate, prodding, physical . . . uh, dull. And it has been to no avail.

"That's as good a game as you'd ever want to play against Pittsburgh," Washington coach Terry Murray said after his lads had absorbed their second straight 3-1 loss from the Penguins.

The Caps rained more than three dozen shots on Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso and shots on goal totals are supposed to go down in the playoffs.

Granted, many of the shots Tuesday night and in previous games weren't that testing, but conventional wisdom also stated that the Penguins were vulnerable in goal. Forget that part of the scouting report.

It has long been a truth that a championship team has to contain a hot goalie and Barrasso easily qualifies off his work to date. In the last two games, Washington has a success rate of .030 (2-for-66) smacking the puck Tom's way. And that's in their own building where things are supposed to favor the Caps.

Fact is, playing on the road tonight probably isn't as much of a detriment to the Caps as we are led to believe. Through last night, there had been 65 games contested during the playoffs and the home team held just a 36-29 edge.

Contemplate the frustration of battling through 80 games to gain the home-ice advantage only to discover it's a myth.

As far as the Caps are concerned, they'd probably just as soon the league office assign them a home, preferably not located out on the Washington Beltway.

They left Pittsburgh last week with chests bulging and heads held high after beating the Penguins, 4-2, then blowing a golden opportunity to go up two games by losing in overtime, 7-6.

Viewing the two one-goal games the Caps turned in at the Cap Centre served as a reminder of what Murray and every NHL coach ever says this time of year: "This is the time your big guys [stars] step up."

With the Caps all along, there have been no "big guys." Just a little guy, Dino Ciccarelli, buzzing around and getting swatted at like an gnat, and the so-called muckers on the fourth line.

Dino leads the club in goals (five), but about the only other "name" players who have performed with a hint of consistency are Kelly Miller and Calle Johansson.

Dale Hunter, Kevin Hatcher, Rod Langway and Michal Pivonka have had their moments while most of the others have been bad if anything.

All during their stay in Washington, the Penguins paraded around with smiles on their faces as if stunned with their impressive success under the circumstances.

During the two games, they were outplayed badly and they're missing a couple of key people; still, they're breezing.

After practice yesterday, Terry Murray repeated what he said following Game 4: "When I think about the effort we made, all I could think of to say is just do it again in Pittsburgh. We'll win."

Unless, of course, Mario Lemieux has one of those games only he and players of his ilk can. He's been good, not great, and there's always the threat that he's about to score a hat trick or set up about four goals.

The Caps finally got around to marking Mario in the last game and he didn't seem to mind skating with a shadow close behind. "You just have to be more patient," he said. "Besides, it gives Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens a chance to do something with the puck."

Something is right. In the brace of 3-1 games in Washington, Recchi, Lemieux and Stevens combined for five of the six goals and seven of the 11 assists. Stop them?

Now you're talking longest long shots.

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