- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

The initials “D.C.” don’t stand for “District of Columbia” when the Washington Capitals play the Pittsburgh Penguins this time of year.

They stand for “Dire Circumstance,” because that is where the Capitals always seem to find themselves.

These teams had met in seven playoff series before this year.

Six resulted in a Capitals meltdown.

There was 1991, when the Penguins won four in a row after losing Game 1.

There was 1992, when the Penguins stormed back from a three-games-to-one deficit.

There was 1995, when the Penguins, uh, stormed back from a three-games-to-one deficit.

There was 1996, when the Penguins won four in a row - and tortured a second-year goaltender named Jim Carey - after losing Games 1 and 2.

There was 2000, when the Penguins won in five games, and 2001, when they lost Game 1 but won in six - the last in overtime.

And then there is 2009.

This is probably Washington’s best team, certainly its highest-profile team. And this could be its most spectacular implosion, in a scintillating series that has somehow lived up to its billing.

After winning the first two games behind indomitable star Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have lost three in a row heading back to Mellon Arena for Monday night’s Game 6.

That includes Saturday night’s stunning 4-3 defeat, a game in which the Penguins played without star defenseman Sergei Gonchar and overcame a 2-1 deficit going into the third period only to see Ovechkin send the game to overtime with 4:08 left in regulation.

Of course, that only set the stage for a tortuous finish, when Evgeni Malkin beat goaltender Simeon Varlamov at 3:28. He scored when his pass to Sidney Crosby deflected off Tom Poti’s stick and into the net.

The Penguins have displayed the heart of a champion. They won Game 4 despite playing most of the night with five defensemen, and they won Saturday night without Gonchar, who was their third-leading playoff scorer before Ovechkin felled him with a wicked knee-on-knee hit.

All signs pointed to a Capitals victory going into the third period, but that was before Ruslan Fedotenko and Matt Cooke scored back-to-back goals in the first 6:27. Fedotenko’s goal - just 51 seconds into the period - was set up on a gorgeous between-the-legs drop pass from Malkin, whose line played against Ovechkin’s most of the night.

That was only part of the drama, which seems to escalate each game.

The combination of playing on back-to-back nights and Ovechkin’s hit on Gonchar meant tensions were boiling from the drop of the puck.

The Penguins scored first (the team that had done so had lost the first four games), when Jordan Staal beat Varlamov at 6:16 of the second period. But Ovechkin, given time to tee one up when defenseman Brooks Orpik backed off, scored 59 seconds later to send the red-clad crowd into a tizzy.

Nicklas Backstrom added a power-play goal at 14:35 of the second before the Penguins stormed back in the third.

Few missed an opportunity to hammer Ovechkin, who tried to nail Crosby with a high hit behind the Capitals’ net early in the game. As the first period ended, Orpik got tangled up with Ovechkin near midice, along the boards, and the two exchanged heated words and shoves.

Meanwhile, Malkin was trading shoves to the face with defenseman John Erskine.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma opened with seven defensemen, inserting Philippe Boucher and Alex Goligoski and scratching winger Pascal Dupuis.

The Penguins played gamely. They battled. They won.

On the other side, we appear to have the makings of yet another Capitals meltdown.

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