- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Washington and Pittsburgh have battled in the playoffs in seven of the past 12 springs. This year the Capitals and Penguins are battling to stay out of the Eastern Conference basement.

The Caps took a step toward avoiding that embarrassment with a 4-3 victory over the Penguins yesterday at MCI Center. Robert Lang had a hand in each of the Caps’ goals against his former team.

While the Caps boast former All-Stars like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Olie Kolzig, the Penguins’ financial woes have stripped them of all of their veteran talent, including Jagr and Lang. A conference finalist in 2001, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a healthy player with more than 230 career points. Defenseman Dick Tarnstrom paces the Penguins with just 26 points, less than half of Lang’s league-leading 56.

“Of course, it’s your old team, so you try to play well, but it was just one of those games where everything goes in the right place,” Lang said.

Barring a tremendous final 11 weeks, this will be the first year since 1982 that both the Caps (14-26-5-2) and Penguins (11-28-5-3) miss the playoffs. But Washington can point to recent progress, with at least a point in its past five games (3-0-1-1).

“We’re playing a lot better defensively,” said Kolzig, who has allowed just nine goals during the five-game run. “[And] we’re starting to play a lot better at home [3-1-2 in the Caps’ last six at MCI].”

Lang, who left Pittsburgh for Washington for a five-year, $25million contract in the summer of 2002, is certainly at home with the Caps. He was in the right spot to lift a rebound over prone goalie Sebastien Caron at 5:36 of the first period after Gonchar fired a shot on net.

However, the youthful Penguins tied the game just 15 seconds into their second power play. Eric Meloche knocked Washington’s Mike Grier to the ice, but the officials only saw Grier’s retaliation. Defenseman Drake Berehowsky got the puck to Tarnstrom, who threaded a gorgeous cross-ice pass to Milan Kraft for a shot that eluded Kolzig.

The Caps were just as bad on their next short-handed situation. Joel Kwiatkowski went off for holding at 1:25 of the second period. Just 11 seconds later, Konstantin Koltsov rushed the net and slid the puck through Kolzig’s legs for a 2-1 Penguins lead.

“Every time you play back-to-back, the fresh team has that advantage, and they do have young legs,” Lang said, referring to Washington’s 2-1 overtime loss Saturday afternoon in New Jersey. “They took it to us for quite a while, but nobody panicked.”

Defenseman Jason Doig tied the score with his first goal in 30 games and second of the year on a blast from the left circle on assists from Lang and Jagr at 6:28. A little more than three minutes later, Lang won a faceoff on the power play and passed to Gonchar, who spotted Bondra sneaking in for a one-timer to beat the helpless Caron and give the Caps the lead for good. Bondra missed Friday’s practice and Saturday’s game with the flu.

“It’s a play that they’ve talked about, and Peter executed it well,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said of his skilled offensive stars. “It was a huge goal. Peter played really well for not being on the ice for a couple of days. All of a sudden, you’ve got another weapon out there on the power play, and it’s a little harder to defend Jags and Langer.”

The Caps doubled their lead when Jagr came out from behind the left post after a pass from Lang. He backhanded the puck to Jeff Halpern, who had been left all alone on Caron’s left doorstep for his fifth goal in 13 games after he had scored just three in his first 31 games.

Berehowsky brought the Penguins within 4-3 with 3:08 remaining on a goal that could have been disallowed because it didn’t cross the goal line with the net in place.

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