PITTSBURGH -- The Washington Capitals rediscovered their defense in the second period. They rediscovered their ferocity in the third.
But Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Ken Wregget, who made 33 saves and produced his third career postseason shutout and his first since 1987, would not let them rediscover their offense last night in Game 7 of this Stanley Cup Eastern Conference quarterfinal showdown.
And so the opportunistic Penguins, having dodged elimination blows twice in this series, advanced to the conference semifinals with a 3-0 victory that sent the Capitals home to contemplate how so much could go so wrong after they had forged a 3-1 lead in the series.
"Give Kenny Wregget credit. He made some great saves," said Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We were right in this series until time ran out. There was no quit in my players. They played determined hockey, hard hockey to the very end, and I still felt that if we had more time we would have gotten it done."
But time ran out, and Capitals general manager David Poile said there is little doubt he will recall the games his team should have won.
"Very disappointing," said Poile, whose team lost a two-goal lead while losing Game 2, 5-3. The Capitals also lost leads four times in Game 5 before falling, 6-5, in overtime.
"To me, we were clearly the best team for five games," Poile said. "We should have had four wins and didn't get it, and they were the best team in the last two games."
Pittsburgh got goals from Norm MacIver and Ron Francis in the first period and then produced an open-net goal by Troy Murray with 3.7 seconds to play. The Penguins now will face the New Jersey Devils in the conference semifinals.
The victory made Pittsburgh the 13th team in NHL history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, and put the Caps in the unenviable position of having blown a 3-1 lead three times.
They now have lost to the New York Islanders (1987) and to the Penguins twice (1992 and 1995). They did, however, overcome a 3-1 deficit in 1988 to beat the Philadelphia Flyers.
Before last night's game, Schoenfeld said the game would be decided in the first 10 minutes. How right he would prove to be.
The Capitals got through the first minute unharmed, but then came one of the strangest scores on record. Poulin had chased Larry Murphy and the puck back to the Pittsburgh zone. Murphy passed to MacIver and, from his own blue line, MacIver advanced up ice. He must have thought he had come to the arena after hours.
There was no one near him. No one in front of him. No one coming toward him.
"You don't see plays like this too often," said Pittsburgh coach Ed Johnston.
Mike Eagles was on Jaromir Jagr, but Jagr had reached out a big paw and "grabbed Calle Johansson's sweater and pulled him in to Mark Tinordi, causing a three-man pileup," said Schoenfeld. And that pretty much left MacIver free to skate in one-on-one on Washington rookie goalie Jim Carey.
MacIver put the puck between Carey's legs for the 1-0 lead at 1:37.
The Penguins made it 2-0 on a power-play goal with 15:40 gone when Kevin Stevens passed the puck under Kelly Miller's stick and Francis scored.
"Whew," said Johnston. "You're not going to see a harder-played series than this. It was a physically and mentally draining series. But we started to turn it around just before overtime of Game 5 and we've given up just one goal in the last two games. Just terrific.
"We talked about getting the lead early, but give a lot of credit to Washington. They hung in there all the way and forced us to play exceptionally hard in the third period. I thought our discipline was very good in the third period, and when they had the scoring chances, Kenny Wregget played brilliant."
Said forward Dimitri Khristich, one of the few Caps to come out for post-game interviews: "We played good hockey and we deserved to score and to win. We spent the final 45 minutes of the game in their zone, but we just couldn't put puck in the net and it was frustrating."
CAPS VS. PENGUINS
EASTERN CONF. QUARTERFINAL
Penguins win series, 4-3
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
Game 6: Penguins, 7-1
Last night: Penguins, 3-0