Caps' collapse in rout is predictable

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANDOVER -- Watch the Washington Capitals long enough, particularly some of their shenanigans in the NHL playoffs, and you begin thinking you might be endowed with prescient powers. Or at least fair to middlin' in the extrasensory perception department.

It's scary how predictable these guys are sometimes.

In their current opening-round best-of-seven series with Pittsburgh, the Caps held a healthy 3-1 margin in games and they were playing the Penguins off their skates in western Pennsylvania a couple of days ago. And lost.

Last night, within the friendly confines of USAir Arena, the Caps had another chance to send Pittsburgh packing and move into the second round of the warring for Lord Stanley's coveted goblet.

Putrid doesn't even begin to describe the effort put forth by the home team as it was pummeled, 7-1. Horrid, embarrassing, inept, brainless, take your pick. It's too bad the three-knockdown rule wasn't in effect. The team could have begun forgetting this one after just 10 minutes of play in preparation for tomorrow night's Game 7 in Pittsburgh.

It took the Penguins all of 42 seconds to score, Luc Robitaille easily beating Jim Carey in goal for the Capitals. Hey, those things happen. But what shouldn't happen is Jaromir Jagr gunning down ice less than three minutes later and making the man defending him, Joe Reekie, and Carey look the part of candidates for an over-40 team starting up.

Then, it got worse. Jagr scored again six minutes later. Robitaille, too. Just 12 minutes had passed and the Caps were trailing, 4-zip. The prize rookie Carey had been yanked after the second goal, and after his replacement Olie Kolzig had made three fine stops over the next six minutes, Jim was back allowing goals as Kolzig was taken off, his season over due to a torn cartilage in his right knee.

Enough of the gory details except to say if coach Jim Schoenfeld thought his boys lacked the necessary "resolve" to close out the series in Game 5, he had to be wondering just what the players do possess that he can draw on in the showdown battle.

An unbelievable seven times in just the last four seasons the Caps have had the opportunity to eliminate Pittsburgh from the playoffs. They've been successful all but six times.

It was in 1992, the year of the Pens' second straight Stanley Cup victory that Washington held a commanding 3-1 edge and it was home for Game 5. Pitt won the next three games, including Game 7 on the road.

The lone time the Caps cashed in on a match point was last year, but only after the Penguins had won a Game 6 to force a showdown. All things considered, Pittsburgh has to be the odds-on choice to send the Caps off screaming into the night at its Civic Arena tomorrow.

When you play the likes of the Penguins, the idea is to climb on top of them quickly and not let up until four victories are in the books and they haven't noticed it's postseason play when they're supposed to be playing some defense.

Robitaille, for one, got the idea a few days ago when he said, "if we want to come back and win this series, we've got to tighten up and stop giving the Caps so many chances."

Here's how porous Pitt was prior to last night: The Caps, who averaged just 2.8 goals per game during the regular season, had averaged five goals in the first five games.

"We're lucky we're hanging on," ex-Cap Larry Murphy, now a mainstay of the Penguins defense, said after Washington had blown four leads and lost in overtime in Game 5.

"We were giving up too many two-on-ones and three-on-twos earlier," Robitaille noticed. The Caps didn't get a hint of an odd-man rush advantage last night until this one was safely tucked away by the Pens. By the time the Capitals registered their third shot on goal (after 16 minutes), Pittsburgh already had four goals. And it would have had two more if Kolzig hadn't been so good during his brief stint minding goal.

A loss is a loss, as the saying goes, but this bromide might not apply here. Some Caps have to be doubting themselves about now, especially when their top goal scorer, Peter Bondra, and his setup man, Michal Pivonka, arrive at the blue line simultaneously, can't decide who is going to handle the puck and collide and go down. This provides an odd-man rush for the Penguins as the two Caps get up and skate to the bench for a line change.

Not only were the losers performing in a daze, they were doing stupid things to boot. Down 2-0, Kevin Kaminski was whistled off for kneeing, a vicious penalty any time noted, and Reekie cast a senseless elbow to give the Penguins a 5-on-3 advantage for more than a minute.

Thing is, the Caps, to a man, know it's Russian Roulette playing fast and loose against Pittsburgh, but it may be too late to get back to the conservative style that suits them best. If indeed the past is prologue, look for a seventh-game loss by the Caps. They're 1-4 in showdown games and have blown 3-1 leads three times previously.

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