LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals didn't exactly want to hand the Pittsburgh Penguins the Stanley Cup after yesterday's game. But after the high-tech performance the Penguins turned in, the Capitals and the rest of the NHL eventually may have no other choice.
Pittsburgh won for the 10th straight time and wrapped up the Patrick Division title with a 4-1 victory over the second-place Capitals yesterday. And aside from complaining about the referees keeping them at a man-down disadvantage for 16 minutes, there was nothing the Capitals could do but rave about the Penguins' performance.
"I think it makes it very, very tough if Pittsburgh is going to have eight power plays against you in any game you play them," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "They're that dominating and they never let you get any flow going.
"Pittsburgh is playing so much better than last year. It's the same good defense and their forwards are collapsing back down making it hard to get anything through. And then [goaltender Tom] Barrasso doesn't give up any rebounds. He's catching just about everything now."
There was no mystery yesterday for the sellout crowd of 18,130 and there was no argument when the Pittsburgh fans in the crowd began singing a farewell to the Capitals with 10:21 left and the Penguins holding a 3-0 lead.
The most unnerving occurrence, however, may have come in the locker room afterward, when Mario Lemieux put the league on notice.
"We've been playing some pretty good hockey," said the Penguins' captain. "But we've been talking about how we've been winning and not playing well in the third period. We feel like we can play better."
Washington, on a four-game win streak three days ago, now takes a two-game losing streak into its home game with Buffalo tomorrow night.
"Pittsburgh grabs you and they pull you a little bit, like this," said Capitals forward Dimitri Khristich, yanking on a sweater. "It makes you stop and then have to start again. If you could get a bounce, if the puck would just stay on your stick and you could get a lucky play . . . "
But against the Penguins, the Capitals get nothing but frustration.
"It's not like football or some other game where it's a building project," said Capitals defenseman Al Iafrate. "Each game is different. If you think about how each of our past games with Pittsburgh has gone, you're headed for disaster."
Yesterday, backup goalie Rick Tabaracci got his first start as a Capital and played very well, making 31 saves and giving up three goals.
The fourth Pittsburgh goal was scored by Lemieux into an open net with 1:10 left. It gave the All-Star forward three points for the day and at least a momentary lead in the NHL points race with 139.
Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine took 137 into a night game with Ottawa.
"Basically what's pushing this team is the fact that we are getting pushed a little by Montreal [for the best record in the league]," said Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman. "The best record, that's a goal we have."
The first Pittsburgh goal was scored by Mike Stapleton off a funny bounce. The second one, by Kevin Stevens, came on one of the Penguins' eight power plays, when the puck slipped under Tabaracci's leg. And the third one came after Tabaracci had made a great stop on Stevens, only to have Rick Tocchet skate in from the back side and snap the rebound into the net.
"They've got a lot of good players," said Washington left wing Kelly Miller. "They play very well defensively. They have a great offense. I mean, when you've got Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Tocchet on a line and Joe Mullen, Ron Francis and whoever, [Jaromir] Jagr, on another one.
"All you can do is play great yourself and hope you can shut down their offense and can play patient enough to wait for your chances."
So the question followed: If they ever met the Penguins when the Caps are on the very top of their game, can the Capitals beat them?
"It could go either way," he said.