PITTSBURGH -- Hockey games are usually played at the speed of sound and, come the playoffs, many move ahead to the speed of light.
You want cool, well thought out decisions in the heat of battle, don't expect them from guys skating back and forth ferociously, carrying sticks and looking to avoid eating flying hunks of rubber, elbows, body blocks and other forms of mayhem.
The way the Capitals were playing at the mid-point of Game 6 last night, it appeared as if they were about to conclude the Penguins' season.
Once again, Pittsburgh, facing another must-win situation, came out throwing haymakers and two of them connected. It was 2-0, Penguins, after little more than five minutes and the crowd had the home team threatening to go into orbit.
Then, slowly, surely, the Caps started back. They got two even-strength goals to tie it. A Penguin was whistled for a penalty well away from the play and Washington moved ahead.
The Caps extended the lead to 4-2 after four minutes of the second period, they were pouring four forward lines and three sets of defensemen at Pittsburgh and all seemed in order.
Clearly, the defending Stanley Cup champions were hanging on and looking around for a miracle. Sure, they have Mario Lemieux, but for 30 minutes or so he was just playing well, not his usual spectacularly.
Suddenly, the puck was at mid-ice along the boards, the Caps were looking to move into the Pittsburgh zone and the Penguin players were hustling back to defend.
"Instead of throwing the puck into the zone," said a distraught Mike Ridley, "I tried to cross it. I never saw [Joe] Mullen."
The pass was weak to begin with. "It hit a stick and fell at Mullen's feet," said Ridley. "It was a bad mistake."
It was also a third goal, Mullen cruising in alone, as if on a penalty shot, and beating goalie Don Beaupre. The Caps still led, 4-3, but the spell they had cast over the Penguins had been broken. And once again the emotions of the fans were about to become a factor.
"We had defused them after we didn't start right," said Caps coach Terry Murray, "and that had to happen."
Worse, just 17 seconds later, a veteran who should know better, Dino Ciccarelli, rammed into Pitt goalie Tom Barrasso and he was sent off for interference. Pittsburgh tied it 43 seconds later when Lemieux set up Phil Bourgue out front and Beaupre had no chance.
Mario, as it worked out, was only starting his act. He broke the tie on a power-play goal, then drew a penalty with an act that would have done John Barrymore proud, and capped his two-goal, three-assist evening with the insurance tally.
Perhaps as damning as his turnover, which pumped renewed life into the Penguins, was the work of Ridley and his linemate Kelly Miller as Washington's main penalty killers. After doing reasonably efficient work against the potent Penguins over the first five games, killing 22 of 28 power plays, the Penguins were four-for-five last night.
"I think we're over-playing some of their guys," Ridley theorized. But it's hard to find fault with staying close to Pittsburgh skaters when it has been proven time and time again that Lemieux can deliver the puck to a teammate's stick blind-folded and through a maze of arms and legs.
After leading three games to one in the series, Ridley allowed that "a lot of the pressure is on us now, and we didn't want it to be that way. But no matter what happened in any of the games so far, you've still got to come out and answer the bell for the seventh game and all else will be forgotten.
"There's no secret about what we have to do now. We've got to support each other and play a better team game."
Terry Murray's problem wasn't so much with Ridley's mistake in judgment or the fact his team has been beaten twice after leading in mid-game. It's the manner in which they've been taking themselves out of games.
He spoke of the game situations last night when Ciccarelli and Kevin Hatcher were guilty of two penalties apiece which led to four Pittsburgh goals.
"It's not a defensive problem when Pittsburgh scores on the power play, not when they have Mario Lemieux," he said. "It's when and where you're taking the penalties."
Also preying on the coach's mind is when some of his so-called name players are going to step up and produce. "Look at Mario," he said. "He got excited and. . . ."
And then there was Kevin Stevens. All but invisible through the first four games, Stevens, who scored three-game winning goals against Washington during last year's playoffs, had two important assists Monday night. Last night, he put a dozen shots on goal while scoring twice and assisting on two other goals.
Slow to return to form after coming back from the 10-day strike . .TC couple of weeks ago, Stevens might have been in the off-season by now if his mates hadn't risen to the occasion. Now, he's flying and promising the seventh game "should be a doozy with the team with the most guts moving on."
"One thing is certain about the seventh game," said Murray. "Everybody has to perform at a very high level." So far, at least, the Caps haven't been getting it from anything close to everybody."