Wednesday, November 23, 2005

PITTSBURGH — If one could separate the first period from the rest of the game, then the Washington Capitals easily would have beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins last night, even if Sidney Crosby had more points than fellow rookie Alex Ovechkin.

But, as coach Glen Hanlon noted, hockey is still a 60-minute game and teams that give up four goals in the first period and score none usually lose.

The Caps were the exact opposite of their near-perfect performance in Montreal on Saturday night, at least at the start, and the Penguins took advantage with four goals in the first 15 minutes to earn a 5-4 victory. Washington had excellent opportunities to draw even but couldn’t, thanks to some fine goaltending from Sebastien Caron.

“The first period was awful, terrible,” said a visibly upset Ovechkin, riding a stationary bike harder than Lance Armstrong ever dreamed of outside the team dressing room. “I don’t know what happened first period but second and third periods we play very well in. We have good chance to score but they play keep-away.”

However, even Ovechkin did not appear to be the Ovechkin that Caps fans are used to during some parts of the game. There were portions of the game when it appeared he had to use all the energy he had left just to get to the bench. As usual, Ovechkin operated at warp speed and last night for the first time in his brief NHL career it appeared to take a toil.

Perhaps the exhaustion was a combination of physical and mental excess, the week-long hype about the first NHL meeting between the last two first overall draft picks. Twice the rookie thought he had beaten Caron, raising his arms in the air triumphantly, but twice he was sent away without a goal.

“I thought I score twice, on the power play and with this move,” he said, indicating a move where he passes the puck between his own legs and retrieves it after the defender has been faked out. “I thought I score but a good save by [Caron]. That’s OK, tomorrow we play Tampa [Bay] and we must forget this game and play tomorrow hard.”

Crosby, the 18-year-old Pittsburgh star, had a goal and an assist to the single assist the 20-year-old Ovechkin had. Crosby’s goal in the first period was an excellent move, splitting the Caps’ best defensive pair, Brendan Witt and Steve Eminger, then faking Kolzig out of position to put the puck behind him.

The Caps were down 4-0 before Chris Clark jammed his own rebound past Caron early in the second. Fourteen seconds later, Brooks Laich scored into a net that Caron had vacated.

Then came the clincher. Crosby was being pushed to the ice along the left boards, but his excellent vision of the ice allowed him to spot Ziggy Palffy alone in the crease. While falling, Crosby managed to drill a perfect pass to Palffy, who easily tipped it by the defenseless Kolzig.

Matt Pettinger and Brian Willsie (shorthanded, with 13 minutes left) scored in the third. But the Caps could not fully dig themselves out of the huge hole they had dug for themselves.

“Once we came to grips with what we needed to do, we had a pretty solid 40 minutes,” Hanlon said. “We kept trying to come back, which is great, but you can’t give up four goals and expect to come back.”

Notes — Caps defenseman Mathieu Biron was a healthy scratch for the seventh consecutive game. … Defenseman Nolan Yonkman also watched from the press box. … Center Dainius Zubrus and left wing Jeff Friesen (groin injuries) and right wing Stephen Peat (broken hand) were medical scratches.

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