LANDOVER -- For the Washington Capitals, it was a nightmare on the USAir Arena ice.
Goalie Ken Wregget made 30 saves and came within 1:27 of his first shutout since 1989 last night and the Pittsburgh Penguins, one game from elimination, crushed the Caps, 7-1, in Game 6 of the NHL's Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
This best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series is tied 3-3 and returns to Pittsburgh tomorrow night for a Game 7 showdown.
The demoralizing defeat would have been bad enough for Washington, which had held a 3-1 series lead. But the Caps also lost backup goaltender Olie Kolzig on a night when the Penguins made Washington's No. 1 goalie, Jim Carey, look like a 21-year-old rookie for one of the few times this season.
Kolzig was playing well after he entered the game with 16:23 left in the opening period with Washington trailing 2-0. But after making a series of terrific stops, he twisted his right knee with 10:41 remaining and will be out indefinitely with torn cartilage.
Pittsburgh got two goals each from Luc Robitaille, Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Sandstrom and one from Troy Murray.
The last time Washington was beaten this badly in the postseason was in 1986, when they lost, 8-1, to the New York Rangers in a second-round game. Last night, Caps right wing Keith Jones spoiled Wregget's shutout bid when he scored with 1:27 to play.
In 1991-92, the Caps lost a playoff series to Pittsburgh after holding a 3-1 advantage. A year ago, however, Washington took a 3-1 lead and wrapped up the Penguins in six games, with the clincher at USAir Arena. Last night, the majority of the 15,412 fans expected to see the same result.
But Carey was beaten early and late in the first two periods, and when Washington's third rookie goalie of the night, Byron Dafoe, entered the game for the start of the final period, Pittsburgh made sure he didn't feel out of place, as Sandstrom scored just 27 seconds into the period.
The Penguins, obviously, were inspired. Maybe it was because Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld assured that there would be no Game 7 -- an unlikely thing for the coach to say, given that he had said nothing but complimentary about the Penguins through the first five games.
It might have been the bulletin-board material the Penguins needed, or it might have been the confidence gained from the 6-5 overtime victory in Game 5. Whatever, the Penguins used it to great advantage.
Pittsburgh scored twice on its first three shots in the first 3:37 of the game. The first score was a rebound goal by Robitaille just 42 seconds into the period, the second on a breakaway by Jagr that made Carey look so bad that Schoenfeld went to the bench for Kolzig.
Kolzig made stops on Jagr and Kevin Stevens on a breakaway. And, while the Caps were killing a 5-on-3 penalty for 1:12 and the ensuing 5-on-4 for another 48 seconds, Kolzig stopped Larry Murphy twice.
Perhaps Washington was going to get back in the game with a hot goalie, but then, at 10:41, Kolzig fell back untouched to make a stop and seriously twisted his knee. He dropped his stick, squeezed his eyes shut and curled up in pain.
When he finally got to his feet, he was helped to the locker room.
Carey came back to a standing ovation, but 10 seconds later, while the Penguins still had a man advantage, Jagr scored. And then, a little more than two minutes later, Robitaille skated in front of the crease in time to pick up a rebound and put it away, after two Washington players got beat behind the net.
When Robitaille scored, the Caps were being outshot 13-3, outhit and outplayed at every turn.
The situation looked like it might improve in the second period. Washington played well early, holding the Penguins to one shot over the first 12 minutes. In fact, the Caps allowed just three shots in the period, but two of them were goals.
And the Caps couldn't beat the Pittsburgh defense. Playing with the lead of more than two goals for the first time in the series, the Penguins were intent on doing the job in front of their own net.
They stopped Peter Bondra at the far post. Wregget stopped Steve Konowalchuk and Rob Pearson on breakaways.
And then, at 4:33, with the teams playing 4-on-4, Murray picked up the puck in the Penguins' zone, beat defenseman Sylvain Cote along the boards and raced down ice for the Penguins' second shot in the period and a 5-0 lead.
Murray skated to the far side of the Caps' goal, drawing Carey to him, and then finished with a backhand just past the fallen goalie.