Caps top Penguins in opener, 5-4

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- Everything the Washington Capitals planned to do in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins went wrong last night. Except for the result.

The Capitals won, 5-4.

Washington wanted to play mistake-free, take an early lead, show its physical dominance, get a first-rate performance from rookie goaltender Jim Carey, and have right wing Peter Bondra extend his hot goal-scoring ways.

Instead, the Capitals gave the Penguins seven power plays in the first two periods -- including a four-minute major on Bondra, who was held scoreless -- fell behind 3-1, saw one of their best players, Dave Poulin, separate his shoulder, and had to pull Carey 1:38 into the middle period.

It was enough to make a lot of teams say "uncle." But the Capitals gave a clear demonstration of what the Penguins are up against in this series. Washington believes its team concept is stronger than Pittsburgh's individual talent, and last night, for one night anyway, it proved it.

"You're going to be hard-pressed to find a team in this league with as much heart and as much work ethic as this team," said rookie goalie Olie Kolzig, who relieved Carey and allowed only one goal to Jaromir Jagr over the final 38 minutes of the game. "This was a big win."

The Capitals rallied and won on the shoulders of their 34-year-old captain, Dale Hunter, and Kolzig, who made 16 saves.

"That's playoff hockey, isn't it boys," said a smiling Hunter. "It's a big win and when your top scorers, like Bondra and [Joe] Juneau and [Michal] Pivonka are getting closed down, it's sometimes up to the plumbers to come through.

"You know Pittsburgh is a tough team. To come in here, and win like this in the first game, it's a good sign."

Hunter scored twice and handed out two assists on two goals by rookie Sergei Gonchar to key the victory that gives Washington a one-game lead in this best-of-seven series going into Game 2 here tomorrow.

It is the fourth time in the team's four postseason meetings with Pittsburgh that they have won the opening game. But they've only won the series once, and that was last year.

Hunter scored the first time in the first period, tying the game at 1. He then assisted on rookie defenseman Gonchar's first goal at 3:57 of the second period, after the Caps had fallen behind 3-1 and after Steve Konowalchuk had tied the game, 3-3, on a short-handed goal. Then it was Hunter again, who gave Washington a 4-3 lead with 29 seconds gone in the third period.

And 1:48 later, Hunter assisted on Gonchar's second goal, and it was that one that turned out to be the game-winner.

Hunter said the victory was a team victory, but that wasn't the way Keith Jones saw it.

"You see him do this in the playoffs time and time again," said Jones. "I don't know how he does it. But he does it. There he was on the checking line and he comes away with four points. It's just too bad he couldn't have hit the open net on that last shot for a hat trick."

There is little doubt that Hunter's performance combined with the relief job turned in by Kolzig were the keys to the Capitals' victory.

And there is also little doubt that the Penguins are reeling, at least a little.

They came into these playoffs off a three-game losing streak. They also had suffered two losses to Washington over the final two weeks of the regular season, including a 7-2 stomping Tuesday.

Friday, Penguins coach Ed Johnston said boldly that his team "will get through this first round, no problem."

Last night, when he saw Len Barrie, Kevin Stevens and Tomas Sandstrom score three power-play goals, forge a 3-1 lead and chase Carey from the game, it looked like he might be right. But by the time the Capitals were finished demonstrating what teamwork can do, he was reduced to hoping.

"We made some costly mistakes and we got burnt on them," he said. "But the way we played the last seven or eight minutes, I was encouraged. I think we turned it up a little bit, and we had been faltering in the previous games that way. I hope that is a good sign."

Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld had no doubts about what he saw.

"For us to come from behind on the road, it is a great emotional win for us," he said. "It typifies the courage and determination our team has been playing with the last two-thirds of the season.

"But we want to play a much better game in game two than we did today. They nullified the Pivonka line, and we expect them to perform better. We have to play with a little more discipline. We took some retaliatory penalties. We want to really improve our game."

NOTES: Poulin could be out a week to 10 days, but Caps physician Richard Grossman said he would know more after looking at X-rays of Poulin's right shoulder today. . . . The Civic Arena crowd of 15,910 was more than 2,000 short of a sellout.

Washington .. 1 .. 2 .. 2 .. -- .. 5

Pittsburgh .. 1 .. 2 .. 1 .. -- .. 4

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