- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

Overlooked in Saturday night's huge 3-2 victory by the Washington Capitals in Toronto was the fact that the Caps killed all seven Maple Leafs power plays.

The bad news is that the Caps took seven penalties, no matter what the reason or cause. If Washington takes seven penalties tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the soldout MCI Center, Mario Lemieux might well be en route to another scoring title.

All the horrifying memories of the torture Lemieux and Friends inflicted on the Caps for a number of years were revisited Wednesday night, when the Penguins took advantage of every opening for a 3-2 victory. Lemieux had a goal and an assist, but simply the fact he was there changed the way Washington played.

The Caps treated Lemieux with the respect an icon deserves, the respect an opposing player who is trying to bury you cannot receive.

"I think it's maybe too much respect," said defenseman Calle Johansson, who has been facing the star for more than a dozen years. "You may think if you get too close to him he might make you look silly if he dekes or does something. Yeah, he might get a little too much room to operate. If we stayed closer to him and not give him that much room, maybe we could shut him down better."

If the answer were that simple, somebody would have perfected it 16 years ago when the tall, shy kid from Montreal broke in. If the answer were that simple, Lemieux would be averaging much less than three points a game in his latest comeback.

But Johansson is right in the premise that some defenders do not get closer to Lemieux for fear of what he might do. Lemieux has made fools out of a generation of good hockey players with his superior ability to think and act a step quicker than those trying to guard him. No other player in the game today, with the possible exception of linemate Jaromir Jagr, has that knack.

Which explains this stunningly simple statistic: since No. 66 resumed playing four games ago, nine of the Penguins' 10 even-strength goals have come from the line of Lemieux, Jagr and left wing Jan Hrdina. A defenseman scored the 10th goal, meaning no other forward has scored at even strength for Pittsburgh in four games.

"That's something I'm starting to see now," coach Ron Wilson said when asked about Pittsburgh having the Caps' number, just as Buffalo did years ago and Montreal did before that. "Last year I sensed it a little bit. We were OK in some of the regular season games but in the playoffs, there's something there. A game like the other night should help us see that we can outplay them. Now we have to find a way to score when we have chances and just relax, have some fun."

Wednesday's game was certainly winnable but for the fact the Caps made just enough errors of omission to ensure that would not happen.

"It's a matter of not getting so focused on the guy with the puck," Johansson said. "It seems that every time Mario or Jagr has the puck, we have a tendency [to gather] like flies to sugar. Everybody rushes in and is focused on the guy with the puck instead of caring about guys without the puck. It's not the guy with the puck who scores usually; he always finds somebody who is open."

That's how Pittsburgh scored the winner last week. The Caps surrounded Hrdina, who had the puck. It was cleared to Lemieux, and defenders rushed in his direction and ignored Jagr, who accepted Lemieux's tape-to-tape pass. Olie Kolzig was toast.

Wilson believes having the last line change will mean a great deal in the game's strategy and possible outcome.

"With us having the last change and possibly Brendan Witt [separated shoulder] back, I think we'll be able to be more physical," he said. "The last change will help me get the Halpern line out, which I thought did an outstanding job against them. I thought the Nikolishin line did a very good job against them as well. It'll be nice and I've got my fingers crossed if Brendan is able to play. Our defense isn't nearly as physical when he isn't playing."

Lemieux, for one, says he has no problem with the physical aspect.

"It's important to get that feeling back," he said. "[Wednesday's game] was almost like playoff hockey, checking and guys running at you. I need to get used to that."

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