PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The Pittsburgh Penguins had only one regret after ending
one of the worst seasons in their 37-year history: They wish they could play
another month or two.
Lasse Pirjeta scored two goals and the Penguins, despite finishing last in
the NHL standings for the first time since 1984, ended their late-season surge
by beating the Washington Capitals 4-3 Sunday.
After losing 18 straight games, the longest streak in league history but not
a record, the Penguins went 12-5-3 _ the greatest turnaround by an NHL team in
any season following a winless streak of 15 games or longer.
The Penguins also were 6-0-2 in their final eight home games after going
0-15-1 during a franchise-record, 16-game home winless streak. That run
included a league-record 14-game losing streak.
Pittsburgh (23-47-8-4) also had one of their best season-ending, 20-game
streaks in their 37-year history. Only in 1992-93, when their final 20 games
included a league-record 17-game winning streak, did they get more than 27
points in the final quarter of a season.
Pirjeta, an unproductive player in Columbus until being dealt for Brian
Holzinger at the trade deadline, helped lead the late turnaround with six goals
in his final eight games, including a pair of two-goal games.
``We know it's going to be the same core group of guys the next few years,
so it's definitely encouraging to play this well to end the season,'' rookie
defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Penguins have a 48.2 percent chance of winning Tuesday's lottery and
getting the first pick in the NHL draft _ almost certainly, Russian star
Alexander Ovechkin. The last-place team hasn't won the lottery since 1997.
Chicago finished second and has an 18.8 percent chance; the Capitals were third
and have a 14.2 percent chance.
Pittsburgh traded up to get the first pick last season, goalie Marc-Andre
Fleury, and could become one of only three teams in the last 30 years to draft
No. 1 overall in consecutive seasons. Ottawa (1995-96) and Quebec (1989-91)
last did it.
``It (the closing stretch) has been great, but everyone wanted us to finish
last, too, so I guess everybody is happy _ except us,'' Ryan Malone said.
``Obviously, you want to be in the playoffs.''
After the game, the Penguins' Eddie Olczyk was given a standing ovation by
the near-sellout crowd.
``We've laid the foundation and now we've got to take the next step,''
Olczyk said. ``Sometimes we had to look past our performance ... but we stuck
to our plan and the young players got to play in Game 1 and Game 82.''
Milan Kraft scored the winning goal on a one-timer from the slot with 2:38
remaining, less than 90 seconds after the Capitals' Jeff Halpern stole the puck
off defenseman Ric Jackman's stick in front of the Penguins net to set up Brian
Willis' easy goal.
Matt Bradley, who set up Kraft's goal, earlier put the Penguins up 3-2 by
scoring off Rico Fata's pass from the near boards.
Pirjeta scored in each of the first two periods off setups by Aleksey
Morozov as the Penguins opened leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, only to have the
Capitals tie it each time.
The Capitals' mostly bad season included the jettisoning of most of their
top players, including Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang.
Asked if he was glad the season was over, Brendan Witt said, ``The year, the
awful year, yeah ... but as players we always enjoy playing, and now it's going
to take a few days to sink in it's over.''