- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson said Thursday that Wednesday night's fan reaction at MCI Center "was an atmosphere you really crave for when you play at home, one you've seen in other buildings."

Winning three more in a row over Pittsburgh ought to create that kind of atmosphere, but for the moment Wilson is willing to settle for just one more in his attempt to draw closer to the Penguins and advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Pittsburgh leads 3-1 in the best-of-7 first-round matchup, using its speed and quickness to get things done that Washington hadn't handled very well until Wednesday's 3-2 victory. The Caps rallied to win the game, with Rockville, Md., native Jeff Halpern scoring the winner with less than eight minutes left.

The frantic pace of the game and the home team's victory produced a type of bedlam never before seen at MCI, even during the Stanley Cup finals two years ago. The public address announcer might as well have been speaking through a paper cup for all the good the loudspeakers did.

The sellout throng of 18,672 might have been cheering at first to acknowledge the Caps' excellent regular season, perhaps anticipating a Pittsburgh sweep. But as the prospect of a Caps victory loomed larger, the noise grew louder and louder until players said they had trouble hearing whistles.

"Before a game starts, you don't know how your fans are going to react, and sometimes it's been hostile," Wilson said. The way the Caps were being beaten in the first three games, Wilson thought that might have aroused some sympathy cheering early on, but "the way we played, that helps, too, to go out and play as hard as we did.

"I think our fans realize [Pittsburgh] is a team with a lot more skill than we have and yet we put everything on the line in terms of effort. They kept cheering, it kept getting better. It was fun. That makes you feel so good."

Wilson and others also noted there was a change in the makeup of the fans at the two home playoff games. During past playoffs, such as against Pittsburgh in 1996 and Detroit two seasons ago, the majority of the crowds here seemed to be made up of fans representing those two cities. But fans wearing Penguins sweaters are a rarity in these playoffs, and that makes a difference in which team is drawing the cheers.

But to get that kind of reaction, Wilson freely admitted, he and the team have to earn it. The two home games so far have been stark contrasts a 7-0 embarrassment in which Washington rolled over and played dead April 13, and Wednesday night's dramatic win.

"We have to find a way of burying some of our chances," Wilson said. "You've got to give [Pittsburgh goalie] Ron Tugnutt credit; on the other hand, you've got to give our guys credit for going to the net and jumping on rebounds."

But it wasn't until the other night that the Caps drove to the net to jump on the very inviting assortment of rebounds Tugnutt laid out in front of the cage. Tugnutt has stopped 127 of the 134 shots he faced (a league-leading .948 percentage), but he has not controlled a lot of loose pucks that might well have been Washington goals had the Caps been able to fight through.

The keys, Wilson noted, are to stay out of the penalty box (the Penguins have six power-play goals, twice as many as the Caps), limit odd-man rushes and get some rebound pressure on Tugnutt.

"We can't allow the Jagrs and Kovalevs open ice in 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 situations, which they've been able to exploit because of their tremendous skill," Wilson said.

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