LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals may think they're playing on the ice at USAir Arena, but in reality, they're playing in another realm. Call it what you will, but last night, the Caps clearly climbed to another level.
For the second straight game, Washington took the Pittsburgh Penguins by storm. They fought off every early challenge, and then in the third period of Game 4, they broke open the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, taking a 3-1 lead in games with a 6-2 victory.
The series returns to Pittsburgh tomorrow for Game 5, with the Capitals having their first opportunity to wrap up the series and move into the conference semifinals.
Using tremendous penalty killing and sound defense throughout, Washington went ahead for good with 12:38 gone in the second period on Rob Pearson's first goal of the season, and then Dimitri Khristich, Joe Juneau and Peter Bondra poured it on in the third.
Michal Pivonka, who scored Washington's second goal of the night, wound up with three assists, including the one on Pearson's goal, while fighting off Pittsburgh defenseman Larry Murphy.
It was, perhaps, Pivonka's most outstanding game of the season. He turned in a memorable offensive performance and contributed strongly on defense and on special teams.
Washington goalie Jim Carey, who earned his first playoff game victory in Game 3, was again astonishing most of last night, making 20 saves. He allowed goals to Larry Murphy and Jaromir Jagr in the first period and after that closed the door.
"It's a great feeling," said Pearson, who had not scored since being acquired in an off-season trade for Mike Ridley last summer. "I don't know the exact words to put it in, but when you don't score in such a long time, you get pretty excited."
Pearson's dad was in the audience last night, and Pearson said he may have to fly him to Pittsburgh for Game 5.
Pearson's goal seemed to lift the entire team, as did a terrific penalty-killing exhibition at 14:47 of the middle period.
The game was tied 2-2, and Bondra had been caught hooking with 1:08 left on a Pittsburgh power play. The penalty meant Pittsburgh would have a five-on-three for 1:08 and a continued five-on-four advantage for another 52 seconds.
"That was probably the hockey game right there," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld.
With Kelly Miller, Steve Konowalchuk, Calle Johansson and Pivonka subbing in, Washington not only killed the five-on-three, but also didn't allow a Penguins shot.
"It was the hockey game," said Pittsburgh coach Ed Johnston. "I mean, you have an opportunity with a five-on-three and to not come away with any shots. . . . The hockey game was out the window when we blew the opportunity on the five-on-three."
The Capitals wasted little time after that, with Khristich scoring 1:50 into the third for a 4-2 lead, and Juneau and Bondra scoring within 35 seconds of each other at 6:38.
"We knew we had to turn it on in the third period," said Pivonka. "We had a 3-1 lead in Pittsburgh and they came back and scored three quick goals and won the game. And they scored a couple quick goals in Game 3 too. We just kept going at them and we were lucky to get a couple quick goals in the third and I think that's what killed them.
"It also was good to get our line going. [Dale] Hunter had a great Game 1. Keith Jones was big in Game 3. It was our turn, our line's turn. You think about it. You know you're supposed to score, so you're pressing a little. But they played good defense against us in Pittsburgh. . . . with the Samuelssons [Ulf and Kjell] they shut us down. Here we had the last line change, so we had a chance to play against someone else.
"I'm not saying it was easier, but we played a little better."
Also playing one of his finest games, Carey made several unbelievable saves, including one against Tomas Sandstrom early in the second period, when Sandstrom got the puck looking at a wide-open net.
"I don't know how he missed it," said Carey, who dived across the front of the net in a last-ditch attempt to stop anything low. "He had all the time in the world. I don't know how I stopped it, but I think he shot it right in my glove. I think he shot it in my glove and it bounced out [and away]. It was the left hand of God. It was a good bounce, my way."
The Capitals were making this game bounce their way all night.
Pittsburgh 2 0 0 -- 2
Washington 2 1 3 -- 6
First period--1, Washington, Konowalchuk 2 (Juneau, Jones), :40. 2, Pittsburgh, Murphy 2 (McEachern), 10:58. 3, Washington, Pivonka 1 (Bondra, Khristich), 12:51. 4, Pittsburgh, Jagr 3 (Robitaille, Francis), 16:39. Penalties--Pittsburgh bench, served by Barrie (too many men), 1:44; Miller, Was (holding), 4:19; Stevens, Pit (slashing), 4:49; Konowalchuk, Was (cross-checking), 4:49; McEachern, Pit (high-sticking), 7:19; U.Samuelsson, Pit (roughing), 8:57.
Second period--5, Washington, Pearson 1 (Pivonka, Johnson), 12:38. Penalties--Pittsburgh bench, served by Barrie (too many men), 1:42; Berube, Was (high-sticking), 4:25; Bondra, Was (hooking), 5:17; Cullen, Pit (tripping), 9:17; U.Samuelsson, Pit (holding), 13:25.
Third period--6, Washington, Khristich 1 (Pivonka, Bondra), 1:50. 7, Washington, Juneau 2 (Konowalchuk, Johnson), 6:03. 8, Washington, Bondra 3 (Khristich, Pivonka), 6:38. Penalties--Joseph, Pit (roughing), 9:18; Kaminski, Was (roughing), 14:21; Robitaille, Pit (tripping), 15:45; Kaminski, Was (tripping), 19:15.
Shots on goal--Pittsburgh 10-5-7--22. Washington 8-10-13--31. Power-play opportunities--Pittsburgh 0 of 5; Washington 0 of 8. Goalies--Pittsburgh, Barrasso 0-1 (31 shots-25 saves). Washington, Carey 2-1 (22-20). A--18,130 (18,130). Referee--Kerry Fraser. Linesmen--Brian Murphy, Leon Stickle.