- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH

For more than 20 minutes after the Washington Capitals failed to accomplish their goal of gaining a split of Games 3 and 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Semin remained on the exercise bike beneath the Mellon Arena stands.

Arms draped over the handlebars and head down, he pedaled so furiously that even workout warrior Sergei Fedorov looked as if he were slacking nearby.

Hopefully for the Caps, Semin was trying to simultaneously remove the stench of his performance the past two games while gearing himself up for the all-important Game 5 Saturday night.

The Caps’ top sniper (five goals) in the comeback against the New York Rangers, Semin - save for a great slap pass to set up Alex Ovechkin’s goal in Game 1 - has not been a factor in the second round. Quick, can anybody remember another positive play he has made?

In a 5-3 loss to the Penguins, Semin got an assist in the opening minute when Nicklas Backstrom’s 50-foot slap shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury. But it was all downhill from there despite beaucoup ice time.

Twenty-two shifts for 21:21 of playing time, including 5:24 on the power play.

Four measly shots on goal and three misfires.

A team-worst minus-3 rating.

No goals… again.

Instead of complementing Ovechkin and cashing in on the feeds he’s getting from Backstrom, Semin seems more concerned with his comical feud with Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik and trying to play the one-on-four game in the Penguins’ zone. That won’t work often, even against Pittsburgh’s defense.

Maybe that’s why Semin was grinding away on the bike.

Maybe he knows he has to be the player who was dangerous every time he got the puck against the Rangers.

Maybe he realizes the careless cross-ice passes through traffic (the other team has sticks, too) or the low-percentage waist-high passes (last time we checked, you can’t catch-and-throw for a goal) on the power play need to be eliminated pronto.

Although the Caps are tied 2-2 in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the vibe is completely different than when they were down 3-1 to the Rangers. New York was teetering on disaster, and it set in during Game 5.

The Penguins flew to the District late Friday with momentum in the cargo hold even though the Caps still have home-ice advantage. Their Game 4 performance was discouraging - they served up a clunker on the power play, got their first shaky game from Simeon Varlamov and committed defensive breakdowns on three of Pittsburgh’s five goals.

Perhaps in an attempt to boost Semin’s game, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau demoted left wing Tomas Fleischmann to the fourth line and elevated Brooks Laich from the third line. It’s a great change, in theory, because Laich is effective in front of the goal and below the circles, but only if he has help from Semin.

Backstrom was asked how vital it is to get Semin going.

“It’s important,” No. 19 said. “I think he’s going to score two [Saturday].”

Backstrom helped set up Semin for a few of his first-round goals and has been on the same line for most of the season, so he knows where he likes the puck.

“He’s a goal scorer, and sometimes it doesn’t go as easily as you think,” Backstrom said. “You have to keep working and shooting a lot, and maybe he gets a lucky bounce.”

Semin’s choice of shots - 12-foot wrist shot, 25-foot wrist shot, 11-foot backhander and 53-foot slap shot - didn’t invite lucky bounces. All were during even-strength play, and the last came with 13:13 remaining and the Caps somehow within striking distance. His night in a nutshell came with 8:33 left, when he found some room gliding into the left circle and fanned on a wrist shot.

If Semin has been a disappointment up front, Mike Green classifies as a disappointment on the back line. He seemed to gain his legs late in the Rangers series after he overcame the flu, but Friday night he made a blind pass in the Penguins’ zone and was caught behind the play as Max Talbot’s goal sealed the win.

“I thought he tried to be too cute with it, but it shouldn’t have gone in anyway,” Boudreau said. “He’s a Norris Trophy candidate, and he’s good. It’s just that sometimes when he makes a mistake, it’s going in our net.”

Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green are all young, dynamic players. Two of the guns - Ovechkin and Backstrom (combined seven goals and 12 points this series) - are producing, but Green and Semin are firing blanks. And it might result in another series loss to the Penguins.

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