Peter Bondra, who had moved into a tie for the NHL scoring lead with a hat trick Friday, stayed there last night with a power-play goal that gave the Caps a two-goal lead and turned out to be the game-winner, when rookie goaltender Jim Carey was able to escape with a 2-1 victory.
Carey, who made 20 saves, deserved better last night. He made the big saves in the first period, when his teammates were off their game, and he held on to the possibility of a fifth shutout this season until there was just 1:15 left.
The Penguins finally got on the scoreboard with a power-play goal by Shawn McEachern after a five-minute major penalty was called on Washington team captain Dale Hunter for checking from behind with 3:09 to play.
"I tried to turn to avoid the collision, but he [Larry Murphy] turned into me and the linesman made the call," said Hunter. "Ace [Carey] played so well for us, and when I got the penalty, it was like, 'Come on boys, kill this off.' I feel sorry for Ace . . . I owe him."
Pittsburgh continued to press in the final minute, pulling its goalie for a six-on-four advantage. But the Capitals refused to yield.
Bondra's goal came just 31 seconds into the third period, when Joe Juneau delivered a perfect cross-ice pass to the charging right wing, who smashed it between Pittsburgh goalie Ken Wregget and the post.
That goal, combined with a power-play goal by Michal Pivonka in the second period, gave the Capitals some breathing room as Pittsburgh mounted a comeback charge.
It was Bondra's 30th goal of the season and his 12th power-play goal, moving him into a second-place tie in that category with Quebec's Owen Nolan, with whom he also shares the league's goal-scoring lead.
"I think it was a very courageous win," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "I thought our team played a great game from the second period on. The Penguins have a terrific offensive hockey team, especially late in a game when they have a power play. It just took a tremendous effort from everyone."
This was Washington's first victory against the Penguins in three meetings this season and improves the Caps' record to 19-17-7. Their 45 points moves them within two points of Boston and New Jersey, who are tied for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Washington will have tonight off before facing the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, who also are battling for a playoff spot, at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night.
"We were lucky we got out of this thing alive," said Carey, who refused to voice disappointment at missing the shutout. "I was just trying to keep us in it in the first period. I can't control our goal scoring or anything else, but we're playing well and we're going to score. We put the puck away again tonight. This time, we only needed two."
The result was amazing given the way the Capitals played the first period, when they allowed Carey to be under siege most of the period.
"I've never seen our club miss more one-timers from 15 feet out," lamented Pittsburgh coach Eddie Johnston. "When you miss those kinds of chances, they come back to haunt you all the time. . . . At times, Carey made the big saves, but we gave away too many good chances in the first."
In the second and third periods, Washington tightened its defense and Carey came up big when he had to.
"It's the timely save and the timely goal," said Schoenfeld. "Jim made the timely saves early and then we scored the timely goals for him.
"I wasn't angry after the first period. I think it's a situation where we look at teams and their accomplishments and their standing in the league and we approach the game somewhat in awe of our opponent. And, it's something we have to play through and I think that's what happened in the first period.
"I didn't see the conviction. It was like we wanted to make the play, but we weren't really convinced it was the right play, so we only made half the play. And when you have to do anything in this league halfway, it doesn't get done. We addressed that."
Schoenfeld also wasn't angry at Hunter for the major penalty, though it came at a most inopportune time.
"I know by the way Dale went in that he tried hard not to make it a major," he said. "It's a disgressionary call . . . and we can live with that, especially since we won the game."
This was the second time in two games in which the Caps had made the most of their power-play opportunities, having now scored on five extra-man opportunities, including two last night. And as it was in the 6-3 victory over Hartford on Friday, it was Bondra, Juneau and Calle Johansson doing the most damage.
Over the past two games, they have 13 points on special teams.
"Unbelievable," said Bondra. "On my goal, Joe just made a beautiful pass and it went in the net."