- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Besides the end result - puck in the net and red light on - each of Sidney Crosby’s three goals had a similar characteristic, and it is something the Washington Capitals must correct if they are to put a stranglehold on the Pittsburgh Penguins with a Game 3 win Wednesday.

He was always near the goal.

There was never a Caps defenseman between him and the net.

And he delivered his hat trick without being knocked to the ice.

If it continues to seem that Crosby has an E-ZPass on top of his helmet - the gate automatically opens when he skates toward Simeon Varlamov - the Penguins are still in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Although the Caps lead 2-0, Crosby has scored four of his team’s five goals and has been allowed to dominate down low, using his strength and intelligence to find open seams, whether he is behind the goal, at the side of the goal or right in front.

It’s time for the Caps’ defensemen to get physical with Crosby. A face wash. A forearm to the gut. A shoulder to shoulder rub out. Anything to make Crosby exhaust himself during an even-up or power-play shift.

While the Penguins spent Tuesday bellyaching about the Caps setting picks during faceoffs and the legality of Alex Ovechkin’s sticks, the Caps actually talked about hockey and how they need to do a better job on Crosby, whose nine playoff goals lead the league.

“He’s unbelievable around the net with his eye-hand coordination, his body position, and he’s very sneaky,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He’s by far the best player to snoop around the net. We play against him during the season, but it seems like during the playoffs he’s doing all the right things, and we have to make sure we eliminate him. …

“He can’t be able to have any room. And then maybe he doesn’t have the opportunity to score.”

In supporting his defensemen, coach Bruce Boudreau cited the fact that Crosby scored two of his goals on five-on-four and six-on-four situations.

“We can be more cognizant of where he is, but if he wants to go there, short of taking a penalty every time, he’s going to get there.” Boudreau said. “You can’t knock every guy out. … You can’t check everybody.”

The Caps’ problem was that they didn’t check anybody in general and Crosby in particular. If anybody should be put on his keister, it’s the opponent’s best player.

Said Milan Jurcina: “We’re trying. When we have a chance, we have to hit him, but there aren’t many chances because he’s quick. You have to be careful.”

Carelessness was the rule against Crosby in Game 2.

First goal: Shaone Morrisonn had Bill Guerin accounted for at the top of the crease. Crosby, however, was left alone by Green to the right of Varlamov and punched home the rebound for a 1-0 lead.

Second goal: Morrisonn was tangled up with Chris Kunitz, but Green was again late to Crosby, who gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead.

Third goal: With the extra attacker, Tom Poti was on Crosby but had to protect an empty net after Varlamov was taken out of position by Kunitz. Crosby took a few whacks before he finally hit it out of midair. With a two-man advantage, Poti couldn’t be blamed for choosing the net over Crosby.

Although not as physically imposing as Ovechkin, Crosby’s deceptive strength makes him difficult to push around.

“He’s not that big, but his center of gravity and legs are so strong he doesn’t allow you to move him,” Brian Pothier said. “The biggest thing with him is you have to be in between him and the net. He’s excellent at jumping through holes and getting into position. I’ve never seen anybody as good at. But if we can keep a defender between him and the net and not let him shoot through, it makes it a lot harder on him.”

Crosby constantly buzzes below the faceoff circles, controlling the puck below the goal line and always looking to receive a backdoor pass or be on the spot for a rebound.

The Caps need to keep Crosby to the outside and effectively defend him without ending up in the penalty box.

“He can find those soft spots and circulate behind the net, and you don’t know exactly where he is, especially on the power play,” Jurcina said. “If you give him a tiny little bit, he’s really good.”

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