PITTSBURGH -- The Washington Capitals often talk about what a simple game hockey is. Play "Cap hockey," they say, execute for 60 minutes, finish your checks and put your chances away. Simple game.
Coach Jim Schoenfeld tried to remind his team of that in the locker room before Game 5 of this Stanley Cup Eastern Conference series in which Washington needed just one victory to clinch the series. There in the depths of the Civic Arena, below the stands where 16,083 fans were ready to write off the Pittsburgh Penguins, the coach took the time to write a message on the blackboard:
"Set the highest standard for yourself today and exceed them. . . ."
The standard may have been high but the execution was lax, and what should have been a simple game turned into a hard one.
Instead of playing their sound, close-checking style that had brought victory in games 1, 3 and 4, they played the run-and-shoot game that the Penguins love and came away a 6-5 loser when Pittsburgh's Luc Robitaille scored 4:30 into overtime.
"I never saw the winning goal," said Capitals rookie goalie Jim Carey, who finished with 25 saves.
"It was a one-timer off the post and it was in the net."
What he did see was too much Jaromir Jagr (two goals), Kevin Stevens (two goals) and Ron Francis.
"You put someone in a corner and they're going to come out swinging," said Caps right wing Keith Jones. "They played with pride and we didn't bury their pride. We played with fire and got hurt. But it's just one game. Now we have to go win at home."
The best-of-seven series moves back to USAir Arena in Landover for Game 6 tomorrow night. If Game 7 is necessary, it will be back at the Civic Arena on Thursday night.
"We didn't have the resolve tonight," said Schoenfeld, who found little comfort in a five-goal production on the road. "We simply elected not to do it.
"We had the lead four times tonight on the road and didn't come out of it with a win. That's what hurts. I think everyone needs to look at themselves. . . . We just had defensive lapses. We did play well offensively, but we weren't sound from the red line in. We had people get beat one-on-one, have bad reads, and we can't expect to win a hockey game when we make so many mistakes."
Washington's goal production came from Dale Hunter, whose two goals make him Washington's all-time leading point scorer with 62 in the postseason, Calle Johansson and Peter Bondra (two). Both of Bondra's goals came in the final period, and each score seemed it might be the knockout punch the Caps needed.
When they weren't, it didn't make Bondra feel any better to know he now has five goals in four games and has moved into a tie with Jagr and Calgary's Theoren Fleury for the goal-scoring lead in the postseason with five.
"I'm not happy now," he said. "I'll be happy when we win this series. When you lose like this, you think about everything but your own goal-scoring. You think about playing 60-minute hockey next time and that we will win next game."
In the third period last night, it was the Penguins who were in control as the Capitals defense struggled to keep possession of the puck and mount an attack. And, afterward, it was the Caps' defensemen who seemed to take the loss the hardest.
"We gave them room when we shouldn't have," said Joe Reekie. "We had big opportunities to win . . . . if we had just hammered down on them, they don't get the goals they need. But their top line had a great game."
In fact, it was as if the Penguins took a page from the Capitals' guide to playoff success. They hit, they dug for pucks and didn't stop.
Just as the Capitals got the big play and the winning goal in Game 4 from little-renowned Rob Pearson, the Penguins got a major contribution from Francois Leroux, a little-mentioned defenseman. After a Capitals scoring attempt, Leroux picked up a loose puck and carried it unusually deep into the Capitals zone, where he delivered the perfect pass to Robitaille for the game-winner.
"Washington kept coming, and we could have given up at any time," said Robitaille. "But Kevin [Stevens] got the huge goal and then Francois made the big play. This is how you win playoff games."
CAPS VS. PENGUINS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL
Washington leads series, 3-2
Game 1: Capitals, 5-4
Game 2: Penguins, 5-3
Game 3: Capitals, 6-2
Game 4: Capitals, 6-2
Game 5: Penguins, 6-5, OT
Tomorrow: at Wash., 7:30 p.m.
Thursday: at Pitt., 7:30 p.m.*