- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

They say redemption is not the foremost thing on their mind, that they're simply happy to be back in the playoffs. It is only a coincidence, they insist, that Pittsburgh is the opponent.
Coincidence? The opening of the tradition-shrouded Stanley Cup Playoffs is not considered official until Washington and Pittsburgh tangle, and they do tonight at MCI Center before what is sure to be a full house. It is the eighth time the teams have met in the postseason since 1991.
The Caps have home ice advantage this time for real unlike last season when it was only a figment of the NHL's imagination because Mellon Arena, originally scheduled to host a dance recital, later canceled when it didn't sell.
Washington lost four games to one the last time out, with the Penguins clubbing the Caps into submission 7-0 in the first game. The rest of the games were close and low-scoring but it was Pittsburgh that did most of the scoring.
The positional situations are the same. Washington is the Southeast Division champion and the third seed in the East; Pittsburgh is the sixth seed.
"We're looking forward to playing them," Caps left wing Steve Konowalchuk said. "We're not concerned about redemption; the Penguins are standing in our path to the Stanley Cup. We want to beat them because they're in our way, simple as that. This has nothing to do with the past."
For the most part there are only subtle differences from last season on each team. The Penguins have imported some muscle and a new goalie, Johan Hedberg, a 28-year-old rookie, to replace Ron Tugnutt, and the Caps have brought in veteran right wing Trevor Linden, who believes real hockey doesn't start until the second week in April.
Oh, yes, the Penguins have made one other addition. Mario Lemieux wanted a better view than retirement offered in the owner's box so he unretired, played 43 games, scored 35 goals and 76 points. Coupled with his right wing, Jaromir Jagr, they have won 10 of the last 14 NHL scoring titles, including Jagr's crown this season with 52 goals and 121 points.
"I think we've gained experience and know how to deal with adversity a little better," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday when asked how his team has improved.
Nonetheless, even with home ice, the Caps are underdogs.
"I think that takes off some of the pressure," Wilson said. "You can look at it any way you want, the bottom line is they have the most talented team in the league, and talent and hard work put together are a very hard thing to beat. We've got to make sure we don't turn the puck over at the blue line, that we win the battles along the boards. We have to understand situations in games, when defensemen can jump into plays and when not to. We can't make any mental mistakes because it's hazardous against great athletes."
Statistically, the teams are pretty evenly matched in some ways. They split four games this season, each won a road game and the power plays are ranked fourth (Caps) and fifth.
But there are differences that favor Washington, if the Caps can take advantage. Defensively, the Caps were ranked 14th while Pittsburgh is 26th; Washington's special teams were plus-13 this season, the Penguins were minus-2. But to take advantage, the Caps have to find a way to slow Pittsburgh's goal-scoring machine, which finished second in the league.
"I think it helps that we know if we do certain things we have a good chance of winning the game," Wilson said. "You can forget what happened in the regular season and what happened in past playoff series against them. Each series has a new story to tell. What isn't different is they have two of the best players in hockey."
Notes About 250 tickets still remain for tonight's playoff game at MCI Center, and 150 have not sold yet for Game 2 Saturday afternoon… . The Caps are giving out white pom-poms as part of the re-introduction of its "White Out." Washington is believed to be the first U.S. pro team to start the playoff tradition… . The Caps issued 200 media credentials for Game 1, four times the normal demand for a regular-season game, and will host five TV broadcast crews (ESPN, Comcast SportsNet, Fox Sports Pittsburgh, CTV, RDS).


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