- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Here was the count and the amount during one five-minute stretch along the concourse at MCI Center for last night's Super Mario event: 27 people wearing some sort of Pittsburgh Penguins jersey, hat or shirt, compared to 31 for the Washington Capitals.

Ron Stright of Northern Virginia was a little surprised by the results of the survey. "When we were getting off the Metro, all we saw were waves of Penguin jerseys," he said.

Then again, his vision may have been a little myopic. After all, he was also wearing a Penguins jersey.

It's not unusual to see a lot of Pittsburgh fans at Caps games when the Penguins come to town. But their presence was accentuated by the fact that this was the first road game for Penguins owner Mario Lemieux since he returned to the ice. There were enough number 66's at MCI last night to mark the legendary highway all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.

"That makes it special," said Brian Tabinowski of Columbia, Md., another Penguins fan who went to USAirways Arena often to watch his team play but was making his first trip to MCI to see Lemieux. "I think it's great. You could see in his eyes when he did interviews last year that he wanted to come back."

Maybe that's why the Caps were beaten so bad by the Penguins in the playoffs last season, going down in five games. Maybe they saw Mario Lemieux in their eyes. Not that they needed a ghost to scare them. Jaromir Jagr did fine all by himself.

Last night it was neither Lemieux or Jagr who did most of the damage in a 5-3 loss to the Penguins. It was center Martin Straka, who had the hat trick, including an empty net goal at the end of the game to seal the win.

The idea of Lemieux coming back to play should have been enough to melt the ice at MCI for the Caps, who, after all, have lost to the Penguins in the playoffs year after year with and without Lemieux. They have lost five of the six series they have played against Pittsburgh. "They already own us in the playoffs," said Jason Silverman of Burke, Va., a Caps fan.

Washington fans saw no reason to think otherwise going into last night's game. After all, the Caps already lost once to the Lemieux-led Penguins, a 3-2 defeat last Wednesday in Pittsburgh. And that was a game where the Caps played well and still lost.

But the Caps insist they believe they can beat Pittsburgh, even with the second-greatest player in the history of the game added to the Penguins roster.

"We know we can beat them," Calle Johansson said before last night's game. "We are a pretty good hockey team. Look at the standings. Sometimes we have to admit to ourselves we're a good hockey team."

They are a good hockey team, but the evidence continues to mount that they are not, and may not ever be, at least this season, good enough to beat Pittsburgh.

A win last night would have gone a long way to make Johansson's faith sound more convincing, and perhaps send a message to the Penguins that they are neither particularly impressed nor intimidated by the Super Mario show. After all, the teams appear to be on a collision course for the playoffs again.

But coach Ron Wilson didn't believe that this game had any playoff implications for his team. He went out of his way to point out that at this point, Washington has a better record than Pittsburgh. "This isn't really the time to be sending a message or to focus on this team, especially a team that is behind us in the standings," he said. "We still have two more regular season games with them."

It felt like a playoff game last night, though, at least throughout the sold-out arena, with a media contingent on hand equal to that of playoff contest. That is what a star like a Lemieux can do fill the house and create excitement on what was simply the 43rd game of the season for the Washington Capitals, played on a miserable Monday night in January. Every time Lemieux got the puck the crowd reacted, either in anticipation or fear. You could almost feel the Caps fans in the stands hold their breath when Lemieux shot. He had no goals, but did collect two assists. And his presence was felt everywhere.

"It felt good to get away [from Pittsburgh]," Lemieux said. "There was a lot less pressure. I could relax a little more, feel a bit more loose." Sort of like a vacation home.

The presence of a Lemieux-like player may be what the Caps, even with a good, competitive team, will eventually need in order to get the recognition they feel they deserve in this town. That frustrates Wilson. "It's a little sad that this is what it takes to get this kind of attention here, when we have players on this team who are having great seasons and had great seasons last year," he said. "I guess it takes winning a Stanley Cup to get that kind of attention. Hopefully, we can do that this year or next year.

"Also, this tells you how this town seems to respond to stars," Wilson said. "Hopefully, one of our players will develop into a star and get the kind of attention that Mario gets."

Stars like Lemieux come along in the NHL once or twice in a generation. Somebody, though, wins the Stanley Cup every year. That may be a more reasonable goal, and would certainly get everyone's attention.

The problem is the road to get to the Stanley Cup may go through Route 66.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide