PITTSBURGH -- As is the case in most sports, hockey is a constant series of adjustments.
The opposition assigns not only a checker but a defenseman to the top scorer, as the Pittsburgh Penguins did the other night in the case of Dino Ciccarelli, and now the Washington Capitals have to find someone to pick up the scoring slack.
Another maneuver the Penguins pulled Monday night at the Capital Centre was to throw up a mirror in front of the Capitals. They played the exact same game the Caps have played so well for years and the strategy paid off in a 5-2 victory.
"But they're still down a game [3-2, in the best-of-seven series]," reminds Washington's goalie Don Beaupre, as if to perhaps bolster the sagging confidence of his mates.
"Nah," continued Beaupre, "it would have been unrealistic to think we would get by Pittsburgh in five games. But we feel good about our position and are confident we can win it [tonight], because we can win in Pittsburgh. We've done it during the season and in the playoffs."
Similarly, the Penguins, even after losing three of the first four series games, haven't doubted themselves for a minute.
"Hey, we're not pressing and we're certainly not down, but we realize we're still behind the 8-ball," said high-scoring forward Kevin Stevens, who gave up his wall-flower act over the first four games and was a factor in Game 5.
It is this confidence, even if a lot of it is unwarranted from time to time, that scares anyone Pittsburgh is playing. Most of the time, the Penguins play it fast and loose with no regrets and it's surprising how often the formula has worked.
The safety-first style they employed the other night, together with tight checking and the fact they gave more players increased responsibility, seemed to cast another huge variable into the picture.
"Not really," argued Ciccarelli, who went from a four-goal game Saturday to only one shot on goal Monday. "We can't worry about what they're going to do. We've got to get back to our plan."
He enjoyed musing how "odd it was they slowed down the tempo of the game and made it work for them."
Being around the game and playoffs for a dozen years, however, Ciccarelli says he can't imagine what it would take to really surprise him: "I've said right along it was going to be a heckuva series."
Watching Pittsburgh go from a mostly-disorganized, disheartened bunch during a 7-2 setback to a 5-2 world-beater 48 hours later, it's hard to imagine where matters may be headed this evening.
Probably just as bewildered are the coaches, relative newcomer to postseason play Terry Murray of the Capitals and the old warhorse Scotty Bowman of the Penguins. If there are two more relaxed guys around, chances are they're being treated for low blood pressure.
After getting smacked twice in Washington at the beginning of the series, Bowman said, "We've got to get more hockey from more players."
After being bombed in front of the home folks and falling behind in games, 3-1, Bowman said, "I don't think their speed was that much of a factor. They just got off to a good start."
When the Caps lost a hideous, penalty-strewn contest at the Civic Arena here, Murray gave the impression he rather enjoyed what had transpired. "It was different; you have to concede that," he said.
There's method to their manner, of course. There's pressure in the playoffs, everyone knows that. Why add to it?
Consequently, Murray says, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why we got beat. When you lose the puck as many times as we did in the neutral zone against a team like that, of course they're going to make plays in transition. That's the type talent they have."
Besides getting fleeced of the puck repeatedly, the Caps did not cover up well in their own end, giving up too many second and third shots. Beaupre has been terrific handling first shots, but he's at the mercy of the bounces, if his defenders aren't there to quickly clear the rebounds off the doorstep.
"When all is said and done," said the goalie, "we're not over-confident and we never have been. But we know we can do it and we've got two more chances, one in each building. They can't say that."
Game 7, should it be necessary, will be at the Cap Centre Friday (7:35 p.m.). The second round of the playoffs, the Patrick Division final, commences Sunday in the home arena of the team with the better record during the regular season.
Watch enough playoff games and you realize home ice isn't that much of an advantage. Mainly, it's an economic advantage, which is no small matter as far as the owners are concerned.