- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The number of so-called hockey experts and oddsmakers who give the Washington Capitals any chance of beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs can be counted on one thumb. And that's precisely the problem the Penguins are trying to deal with.
Both teams returned to practice yesterday to prepare for tomorrow night's opener in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at MCI Center, with the Penguins trying to sound anything but overconfident and the Caps readily conceding they are underdogs.
"I think we're the underdogs, but I don't think it matters either," Caps coach Ron Wilson said. "The bottom line is they have all the intangibles. They've got some people who can really elevate their games, and we've got to find a way to either slow them down a little or find ways of elevating our own games."
Pittsburgh hustled the Caps out of the playoffs last season without giving the Southeast Division champs a second thought, or so it seemed. It is a stigma the Caps are stuck with; it is a laurel the Penguins are trying to live down.
"It's not going to be easy," Mario Lemieux told reporters yesterday at the Penguins' practice rink in a hushed, serious tone. "We've had a lot of close series with Washington and a lot of close games this season. They've had a great year, they have a great defense, a great goalie. By no means is it going to be easy. Our power play and penalty killing are going to have to be solid. This is the playoffs; you have to raise your game or else you're going to be out very quickly."
It was almost like a theme had been spelled out on a bulletin board for the players to follow. Even Darius Kasparaitis, the excitable Pittsburgh defenseman, got into the act.
"That's the problem," he said when asked if it was going to be easy. "We just have to concentrate on what we can do best. We have to believe we can beat the Capitals, but the worst things happen when you think that way and when you expect something like that. It's going to be tough; nobody's going to just give up. The worst thing to think is that this is going to be an easy series."
History might look at things differently. Washington and Pittsburgh have met in six postseason series, and the Caps have won only one. Washington was blown out in Game 1 last season, then played reasonably close for the next four but couldn't get enough pucks past Ron Tugnutt, a former Washington backup goalie.
Wilson was asked yesterday if there might be a monkey on the Caps' back. His answer was no, and he cited a 2-2 split in an evenly played series this season.
"How do Phil Mickelson and David Duval feel playing against Tiger Woods?" the coach asked in response. "How do the Utah Jazz feel playing against Michael Jordan? It's not a psychological hurdle, it's overcoming the skills of great hockey players, and that's what we have to do. Mario Lemieux is obviously one of the greatest players of all time, and maybe the best player in the world right now is Jaromir Jagr. These are the guys we have to deal with."
And therein lies Washington's problem. The Penguins scored 281 goals this season but were only plus-25 in goal differential, not a good defensive posture. The Caps scored 48 fewer goals but were plus-22 in differential, a better ratio when the fewer number of goals are considered.
"We try to be a defensively conscious team, but at the same time we're going to have to find ways of scoring because the longer the series goes there are going to be games where we have to score four or five goals if we want to win," Wilson said. "I haven't seen a defense from any team in this league able to consistently stop Jagr, Lemieux, [Alexei] Kovalev, [Martin] Straka, [Robert] Lang, so we're going to have to find ways of scoring.
"We've got to make sure we're driving our feet, forcing them to take bad penalties and make sure that our power play is clicking because offensively that's our primary weapon, the power play, and we've got to take advantage of those opportunities."

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