PITTSBURGH -- The Civic Arena was standing-room only, as 17,215 fans wedged themselves into the building to see the aftermath of the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins four-overtime marathon in Game 4.
They came with signs reading, "Beware the Penguins", and it turned out to be sage advice, as Pittsburgh won, 4-1, to take a 3-2 lead in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
And what they saw was perhaps as amazing in the final minutes as Game 4 had been for more than six hours.
All the pent-up frustrations felt by the Capitals seemed to surface, egged on by the Penguins.
The fans came to see a hockey game, but as the old joke goes, a fight broke out.
The fights erupted in earnest with less than two minutes to play. The Penguins said the Capitals instigated all of them, and Mario Lemieux, who finally got on the scoreboard last night with his first goal of the series, said: "Those are the actions of a desperate hockey team."
Well, the Capitals are desperate. The Penguins now have the opportunity to clinch the series tomorrow. Game 6 will be played at USAir Arena at 3 p.m.
With 1:10 to play, Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld was escorted out of the arena for an altercation with the Penguins assistant coach Bryan Trottier. That incident followed a series of on-ice fights, the most startling of which saw Washington goalie Olie Kolzig leave his crease and his zone to swoop in on Penguins defenseman Francois Leroux, who was tied up with a linesman and Capitals captain Dale Hunter at the red line.
After 98 penalty minutes were handed out in the last 70 seconds, the game, mercifully, reached its conclusion.
But backstage, the verbal disagreements continued.
After saying his team played a very sound game and benefited from another sensational performance by Ken Wregget (39 saves), Pittsburgh coach Eddie Johnston blasted the Capitals and Schoenfeld for their rough tactics and accused the coach of sending Craig Berube on the ice "to go after" his top players.
"I don't think guys on this team have much respect for the manager of that team," said Johnston, referring to Schoenfeld. "There have been a lot of coaches this year who have spoken out about his tactics and I think the league ought to do something about it."
For his part, Schoenfeld said, "I don't know what color the moon is on Eddie's planet, but let's think this thing through. If I'm sending players out onto the ice to fight someone or finish the game tough, I don't think I'd have Joe Juneau, Sylvain Cote or Serg Gonchar on the ice."
In fact, the Capitals thought it was Johnston who had sent tough-guy Alek Stojanov and Dave Roche out to fight their big defenseman Mark Tinordi, and that's what set off Schoenfeld.
Tinordi said Stojanov told him at the end of their fight: "I didn't want to fight you, but the coach said I had to. I believe him, because they're up 4-1 with a little over a minute left and you usually don't come out to fight unless the coach tells you to."
Later, Stojanov denied it.
"Nobody told me anything," he said. "Of course they're going to say that."
Both sides said players on the other side should be suspended. And so this best-of-seven series that has been so wonderful has degenerated into a "He said, He said" faceoff fit for the Oprah Winfrey show.
All of which detracted from a pretty good hockey game last night.
It was a bitter loss for the Capitals, who came in here with confidence. The series was tied 2-2 because Washington had won twice here with come-from-behind victories.
But last night, with Kolzig and Wregget again aligned to duel in goal, the Capitals could not overcome.
After Game 4's 139-minute and 15-second marathon, the hole here was just too deep. Lemieux, Leroux and Bryan Smolinski staked the Penguins to a three-goal lead. And, when Jaromir Jagr banked one in off Kolzig with 3: 47 to play, it was over.
The Capitals, whose hearts were big, could manage just one goal on Wregget.
The only puck to past him came on a brilliant play by rookie Andrew Brunette with 14: 51 gone in the second period.
Behind 3-1 going into the third period, the Capitals kept coming. At times their efforts got them into trouble. And with 14: 20 to play, Joe Juneau was called for a four-minute major for high sticking Ron Francis. Coming as it did shortly after Eric Charron was called for roughing, it meant the Capitals faced a 5-on-3 Pittsburgh power play for 1: 33.
Washington killed the two-man advantage and the extended power play. But that didn't help their side of the scoreboard.
Notes: With 13: 55 to play, Pat Peake slammed hard, feet first, into the boards and didn't get up for a long time. Peake was finally helped off the ice and taken to Allegheny Hospital for X-rays, which revealed that his right heel was broken.
Pub Date: 4/27/96