- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

This is going to be something, this first-ever playoff series between the Washington Ovechkins and the Pittsburgh Crosbys. It might even live up to its billing, no easy task given the coverage it’s received from here to Samara, Russia. (That’s Simeon Varlamov’s hometown.)

But if the first 60 minutes - fast and frenzied - are any indication, I’d strongly advise fastening your seat belt. It’s going to be a beautifully bumpy next two weeks - a veritable Six Flags ride. And for once, the Capitals might be able to play from ahead instead of having to shift into Desperation Mode by Game 2.

It was lovely to watch, the Caps’ free-flowing 3-2 win over the Penguins in Saturday’s opener at the Phone Booth. Indeed, it was the kind of hockey the NHL hoped to provide when it reinvented itself during its exile four years ago - unceasing action, plenty of scoring chances and not a single glove dropped in anger.

The Capitals won, as much as anything, because they’ve also reinvented themselves in the last few weeks - or maybe the word is “rededicated.” When Bruce Boudreau went all in and put rookie Simeon Varlamov in goal after the Caps dropped the first game of the Rangers series, his players realized they had to get serious about defense and give The Kid as much support as possible; otherwise, they could forget about making any kind of postseason run.

So they held New York to just seven goals the remainder of the seven-game series, and they continued to buckle down Saturday against the explosive Penguins. Who says this Capitals team doesn’t want to get its hands dirty?

This is how the Caps have to play if they want to beat Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and their comrades. But you don’t have to tell them that. As Brooks Laich said: “We don’t want to get into a run-and-gun game - even though we have players who can be very creative offensively. We want to play solid and airtight defense. Pittsburgh’s a lot more aggressive than the Rangers were. You’ll see a lot more end-to-end rushes in this series.”

Yes, you will. That’s the beauty of it. The Capitals are playing real hockey now - with an opponent that’s more than happy to skate with them. The Rangers were not more than happy to skate with them. The Rangers preferred to fall back in a prevent defense.

Which isn’t to say the Caps’ ‘D’ was gaffe-free against the Penguins. The first 10 minutes were particularly hair-raising. Crosby got separation from Brian Pothier on a rush and found the net with barely four minutes gone, and the Pens had other early opportunities, including the game’s first power play, which Varlamov foiled.

But David Steckel got the Capitals even thanks to a pretty centering pass by Matt Bradley, and Alex Ovechkin put the home team in front with two Penguins in the penalty box, one-timing Alexander Semin’s set-up into the open side. So at the end of the first period, it was Ovechkin 1, Crosby 1 - or if you prefer, Caps 2, Pens 1.

Steckel’s score was the best of omens for the Capitals. After all, in the playoffs, as he pointed out, “You need secondary scoring to win. You’re not going to win games if you’re only relying on your first and second lines.”

The Caps might need scoring from the Zamboni driver to keep up with the Penguins. Pittsburgh is that dangerous offensively. It’s kind of miraculous, really, that the Pens only lit the red lamp twice Saturday.

The second time was on a slapper from the point by defenseman Mark Eaton in the second period that fooled Varlamov and glanced off his glove - a rare “soft” goal allowed by The Kid. But he made up for it a short time later with a highlight-reel stick save on Crosby, who had almost the whole net to shoot at from close range.

“Kind of a desperation save,” said Sid, almost disbelieving.

But then, nobody does desperation like the Capitals. Anyway, Varlamov’s stop roused his mates, who had hit a bit of a lull in the middle of the period, and they played like champs the rest of the way. Tomas Fleischmann scored the game-winner early in the third after some precision passing by Nicklas Backstrom and Semin, and by the end the crowd was chanting “Var-ly! Var-ly!” with the kind of reverence it used to show “O-lie!” Kolzig.

All in all, an encouraging start to the series for the Caps. They got Ovechkin going early (his first goal vs. the Rangers didn’t come until Game 4), their defense held up against the Penguins’ relentless pressure, their young netminder continued to show no evidence of verves and - can you believe it? - they still have the home-ice advantage.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, boys,” Laich said. “I think as the series goes on, there are going to be close games, there are going to be overtimes, there’s going to be controversy and there’s going to be a lot more things that come into play.”

Bring ‘em on.

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