- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

PITTSBURGH. Come on, no sad faces now. We've been through this too many times before. When the Capitals meet the Penguins in the playoffs, it's OK to hope for the best as long as you prepare for the worst.

The Caps are to the Pens what the Brooklyn Dodgers once were to the New York Yankees. Pittsburgh ended Washington's season in '91, '92, '95, '96 and '00, and now the Pens have broken the Caps' hearts again 4-3 in overtime of Game 6, on a turnover by Sergei Gonchar and a goal by merciless Martin Straka.

What a series this was; it couldn't get much closer. And last night's finale should go straight to ESPN Classic. It had just about everything you would want. It had the Penguins jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead. It had the Capitals battling back to tie it with the help of a Brendan Witt "Hail Mary" from the blue line that glanced off Pittsburgh defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. It had the Pens going back ahead in the last second of the second period on a goal by Alexei Kovalev. It had Calle Johansson sending it into OT with just 2:40 left in regulation.

It had great goaltending. It had Mario Lemieux. It had Jeff Halpern everywhere. (More on him later.) Don't call 'em the Same Old Caps. They didn't give an inch in this series; they just lost.

"I'm extremely proud of the way we played and competed all night long," Ron Wilson said. "If we had found a way to win the game, I'm not sure how much Pittsburgh would have had left [for Game 7]. They were huffing and puffing at the end."

There's nothing for the Capitals to be embarrassed about this time. There was no 7-0 loss in the series opener, no blown three-games-to-one lead. (Though it was pretty remarkable that the Capitals had only one even-strength scores in the first five games in overtime.) No, the Caps played with grit and generally gave as good as they got.

But there's a bigger gap between these two teams than the scores would indicate, and here's why: because the Penguins obviously can beat the Capitals any way they want. They can beat them playing their game (that is, wide-open, which the Caps would have no part of in this series), and they can beat them playing the Caps' game (low-scoring, grind-it-out trench warfare, which is what the series turned into). I'm reminded of the famous Bum Phillips line about Don Shula: "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and he can take your'n and beat his'n."

The Capitals figured the Penguins would eventually crack, that they weren't built for such thankless toil, that some holes were bound to appear in the Pens' defense. But the Pens held together. They forechecked, they dumped the puck, they waited for their chances and they made the most of them. Or at least, they made more of them than the Caps did of their opportunities.

This is where the Capitals are right now. They're the best team in the Southeast Division, sure, but in the playoffs they're nothing special. After all, their conquerors, the Penguins, will be hard-pressed to advance past the second round (which is where they fell last year). Their next opponent is Buffalo, which just eliminated the Flyers 8-0 in Game 6. Lemieux is probably ready for another sabbatical.

The silver lining in all this for the Capitals is that they found their next leader. In the '80s it was Rod Langway, in the '90s it was Dale Hunter, and in the '00s it will be Jeff Halpern. This kid is the real deal, folks. The bigger the game, the better he seems to play.

He was the best player on the ice for Washington in the Pittsburgh series last year, and he scored two of the Capitals' three biggest goals in the series against the Penguins this year the game-winner in OT in Game 4 and the one late in the second period last night that tied it, 2-2. He also had a hand in the Caps' other huge goal, setting up Johansson. And he and linemates Steve Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen did a fine job of keeping Mario and friends from making too much merry.

He's a publicist's dream, Halpern is. He's a hometown boy (Potomac), he's got Matt Damon-type likability, and he plays until his heart bursts. How in the world did somebody with his intangibles go undrafted? A decade from now, he'll be a Washington sports institution.

And by then, no one will remember this latest playoff disappointment against the Penguins.

Yeah, right.

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