- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

Maybe the Caps need to play backward to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 tonight at Mellon Arena.

Instead of waiting until the last minute of the game to pull goalie Olie Kolzig, maybe coach Ron Wilson should open the game with an extra skater and without Kolzig in the net, to try to score first.

That's the key to winning in this series score first, and don't even look at the opposing net again, unless you get a lucky rebound or easy shot.

The team that has scored first has won each of the five games, and the Penguins the offensive juggernaut are downright giddy about the fact that they've found a new way to win, by playing defensive hockey.

According to Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka, it's easy.

"We have a smart team with smart players," he said after his team's 2-1 Game 5 victory at MCI Center. "So it is easy to play good defense. Easy to score goals."

That should get under somebody's skin on the Caps side. That shows a decided lack of respect.

What does Washington have, a dumb team, with dumb players?

That's what it has come down to. Any bulletin board material is welcome.

It hasn't exactly been easy to score goals in this series, despite what Hlinka said. Pittsburgh has scored only 10 in five games. But it's much harder for the Caps. They have to rely on goals from the Unknown Scorer if they hope to have a chance to not just win tonight in Pittsburgh, but to beat the Penguins in back-to-back games. Game 7, if needed, is scheduled at MCI Center tomorrow night.

It's desperation time boys and girls, backs against the wall, no tomorrow and all that. That only makes it worse for the Caps, who play their best under control. Time after time during this series, you've heard from Washington coaches and players alike say that they have to play "perfect hockey."

Desperation does not often lead to perfect hockey, though, and the Penguins fully expect the Caps to play desperate hockey tonight. "It's not over," Mario said after Game 5. "They beat us the last time in Pittsburgh [with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 4). They're going to be desperate."

That could mean Game 6 could be wide open which doesn't bode well for the Caps, especially after what Mario said following his team's Game 5 win. He thinks the Penguins had a chance to put the Caps away, but didn't. "We opened it up for the first 10 minutes, got two goals, then sat back a little too much," he said. "We have to learn from that, try to get the third and take the game over."

The Caps can't win a shootout with the Penguins. Actually, Washington is fighting a losing battle against Mario, period. He may not be scoring much, but the defensive Mario gets just as many breaks from the officials as the offensive Mario does. Everyone knows the suits at ABC and the NHL want Mario's team to advance in the playoffs, although they might not be too pleased with the new-look defensive Penguins.

The Caps can't seem to win a defensive battle, either. That is a shame because if you look beyond this series, and look back on this era of Caps hockey the George McPhee-Ron Wilson era, which began with the 1998 Stanley Cup finals run they may be wasting the work of one of the best goalies in Caps history.

I fully understand and applaud the patience of McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis to construct a financially responsible player development system that will serve the Caps well into the future. However, they have been blessed with a truly great goaltender in Kolzig, but the amount of time he can stay at the top of his game is finite.

At the age of 31, Kolzig is hardly over the hill. He could have many more years of time in the net. But you can argue that since the 1998 season, Kolzig has been in the prime of his career, particularly coming off last year's Vezina Trophy winning season.

It's time for the Caps, who under Leonsis' stewardship have made huge strides as they built up the season ticket base to nearly 11,000, to capitalize on the opportunity they have while Kolzig is in goal. They need to bring in some firepower to match their defensive presence in the net. If there was ever a message that Leonsis took from this Pittsburgh series, win or lose, it is that now is the time.

That doesn't necessarily translate to mortgaging the future. What it does mean is taking advantage of the present.

The present is this: Washington has played its game, and played it pretty well, but it hasn't been good enough to lead this series. "They did an excellent job," Wilson said of his team's play after Game 5. "It was just a tight, tight game. We had one bad shift in the game and they scored two goals off it. Other than that, I can't find any flaws in our game except that we couldn't find a way to score."

Couldn't find a way to score, the Caps need to change that not just now, but in the immediate future, or else it will forever be a line used when they write stories years from now about a Caps team with the best goaltender in franchise history.

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