They scored only one goal each in the final three games of the Patrick Division finals, including last night's 4-1 loss at the Civic Arena before a sellout crowd of 16,164. The Penguins advanced to the Wales Conference championship to face the winner of the Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens series.
What Capitals coach Terry Murray did argue was his team did not deserve to be eliminated after just five games.
"We played well in most of the games, in fact very well," he said. "We worked real hard. To lose four straight, I think that shouldn't have happened. [In] some of those games, we were the better team."
Although Murray took some of the blame for the series loss and praised the effort of his players, the Capitals' inability to score proved the main cause of their demise.
"We had a couple of opportunities, some odd-man rushes, a five-on-three power play, we had a couple hit posts," Murray said. "The puck just didn't go in for us."
Whenever the Capitals beat Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, the puck seemed to hit off the post or miss the net.
"I don't have any answer," said left wing Kelly Miller. "Everybody was trying real hard and working real hard. We put a lot of pucks at the net, but sometimes they don't go in for you. Unfortunately, it came at the wrong time."
Miller gave credit to Barrasso, who was in goal for the last three games of the series. He missed the first two games with a shoulder injury.
"They played well and got the goaltending when they needed it," Miller said.
Barrasso stopped 33 of 34 Capitals shots. Offensively, the Penguins were led by rookie Jaromir Jagr and Joe Mullen, each who had one goal and one assist. Dave Tippett had the Capitals' goal.
The Capitals could not get the puck in the net, but the Penguins were able to come up with a superior offensive effort when they needed it. Leading 2-1 after two periods, Jagr's third goal of the playoffs at 7 minutes, 53 seconds of the third period gave them control of the game. Jagr picked up the loose puck at the Capitals blue line, skated in on goal past a faked-out Kevin Hatcher and beat goalie Don Beaupre on his right side.
"Jagr made a pretty good move on the goal," Murray said. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do. Pull it to his backhand and throw it upstairs."
Playoff scoring leader Mark Recchi notched his 21st point on an empty-net goal with 1:17 remaining to account for the final margin.
In the first period, the Capitals gave notice they would not roll over, but they didn't show much life on offense and ended up trailing, 1-0. Outshooting the Penguins, 12-10, and stopping both of their power-play opportunities, the Capitals were the victims of bad luck and good goaltending.
Their best scoring opportunity came with 3 1/2 minutes gone in the period, when Kelly Miller's rebound from in front of the net found the stick of prone goalie Barrasso instead of the partially open net.
The Capitals hung tough during both of the Penguins' power-play chances, allowing them just one shot on goal in each. During the Penguins' second man advantage, the Capitals missed an opportunity to score a short-handed goal when Dimitri Khristich's shot from a two-on-one breakaway was stopped by Barrasso.
Twenty-two seconds after the end of that power play, at 15:38, the Penguins scored the only goal of the period. From behind the Capitals' net, Jaromir Jagr found Larry Mullen in front. Mullen beat Beaupre on the upper right side to give the Penguins the lead.
As the second period began, the Capitals' luck went from bad to worse. With a two-man advantage for 1:34, they came close to HTC tying the game. A shot by Calle Johansson caromed off the crossbar, and a slap shot by Kevin Hatcher hit off the right post.
"You should almost be up over the 95 percent completion rate on five-on-three over the length of the season and the playoffs," Murray said. "We had to score in that situation to get ourselves back in an opportunity to win a game."
Less than a minute after the second penalty expired, at 4:11, the Capitals allowed the Penguins' second goal. When the Capitals failed to clear the puck, Mullen found Kevin Stevens behind the net. Stevens skated behind the net unguarded and hit Ron Francis in front, who jammed the puck past Beaupre.
The Penguins appeared to be in control at that point, but the Capitals cut the lead to one at 9:13 of the period. A spinning, falling Peter Bondra whipped the puck from the right circle to Tippett, who slammed it into an open left side of the net for his second goal of the playoffs.