- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH

If Game 2 was a Certified Classic - featuring hat tricks by the two biggest stars on the planet - where do we rank the third act of this Capitals-Penguins drama, won 3-2 by the Pens in overtime on a slap shot that deflected off a defenseman and hopped over Simeon Varlamov’s left shoulder?

Just wondering: Have the Caps ever scored a goal in the last two minutes of a playoff game to send it into OT - as Nicklas Backstrom did Wednesday night with 1:50 left in regulation?

Just wondering, Part 2: Has a Caps goaltender, even the sainted Olie Kolzig, ever played better under pressure than The Kid, Varlamov, did, fending off puck after puck - 39 of them in all - to the growing consternation of the Igloo crowd?

“You get goaltending like that,” Bruce Boudreau said, “you’ve gotta win, because it doesn’t come around very often.”

Three games, all decided by a single goal. Pull up a chair, folks. The Capitals still hold a 2-1 lead, but this could take awhile.

You get the feeling they’re going be talking about this series 20 years from now - talking about it as a watershed, as the moment when hockey, four years after it turned out the lights for a season, came in from the cold.

Brooks Laich promised after Game 1 there would be overtimes before the teams were through with each other, and Tuesday night we were treated to the OT No. 1. (Because Brooks obviously has a Nostradamus Thing going, we can only assume there will be more such suspense down the road - maybe even Friday, when the clubs cross sticks again, or Saturday back at the Phone Booth. This series is going to start coming at us awful fast - almost as fast as the desperate Penguins came at the Capitals on Wednesday night.)

“They kept getting [the puck] in deep and wearing us down,” said Shaone Morrisonn, the defenseman who served as the middleman on Kris Letang’s winning goal. “We didn’t stick to our game plan. They kept getting [the puck] in deep and wearing us down.”

Still, after playing from behind in the first two games of the series, the Capitals actually found themselves with a lead after 20 minutes. The goal they scored was a little unusual, but then, so was the goal the Penguins scored in the second period to pull even.

On the Caps’ score, Mike Green fired the puck off the rear boards from center ice, and it caromed straight out, past surprised goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury - who got caught behind the net - and right onto the stick of Alex Ovechkin, who took full advantage of the (mostly) unoccupied goal with just 83 seconds gone.

The Capitals almost made it 2-0 later in the period when Nicklas Backstrom nearly scored on a wraparound, but he let the shot go a touch too early and sent it through the crease instead of into the net. Still, it was a vast improvement over the it-could-have-been-worse first periods the Caps had in Games 1 and 2.

No, their it-could-have-been-worse period last night was the second - and much of the third. The Penguins, well-aware their season was slipping away, kept constant pressure on Varlamov. The Capitals simply couldn’t get the puck out of their own end. Fortunately for them, Varly was every bit as sharp as he has been throughout the postseason. Ruslan Fedotenko did get one past him, but only after the winger’s attempted pass bounced off Milan Jurcina, who had gone down to block it, and went right back to him, giving him a clear shot at the goal.

It’s hard not to think of Jim Carey when you’re watching Varlamov prowl the crease. Fourteen years ago, it was Carey who was the Capitals’ golden child; he had just won the Vezina Trophy at 21 - the same age Varlamov is now - and hopes were high when the Caps faced the Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs. But Jim wilted when Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and their friends opened fire on him, and Pittsburgh won in six games.

Varly, it’s clear, is made of stronger stuff. Six straight penalties were called against the Capitals, and on the first five The Kid allowed no puck to pass. But on the sixth, with just 4:59 to go, Malkin, quiet the past five games, scored on a blast with a teammate planted in front of the goal.

But then the Caps finally got the man advantage - their first since the opening period - and Backstrom, parked to the left of the crease, made it count. Once again, they had come back against the Penguins, as they had in the two games in Washington.

How do they keep doing this? Well, just look overhead at Mellon Arena.

Three banners hang from the rafters, celebrating all the scoring titles (12 - not counting Evgeni Malkin’s this season) and MVP awards (five) Penguins players have won. Mario Lemieux’s and Jaromir Jagr’s names are listed over and over again, of course, and so is Sidney Crosby’s.

There’s no banner for the Pens’ Vezina Trophy winners, though - and for a very good reason: The Pens haven’t produced any Vezina Trophy winners.

Pittsburgh has always been first and foremost about offense - at least since it became an NHL force in the ‘80s. In other words, the Penguins will skate with you. When you play them, you’ll get chances to score, because they’re a run-and-gun team and are always looking to score themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re defensively derelict, only that ‘D’ isn’t at the top of their list of priorities.

That makes the Penguins a good matchup for this young Capitals team, which is still coming to grips with its success, still learning to navigate the shark-filled waters of the playoffs. Against the Pens, the Caps know if they make a mistake and let in a goal, they’ll have opportunities to atone for it - because of the way Pittsburgh plays, fast and occasionally loose.

That wasn’t always the case in the first round against the Rangers. Early on, when Henrik Lundqvist was stopping just about everything - and his mates were doing such a good job of protecting leads - the Capitals weren’t always sure if New York was going to give them another opening. And it can be hard to play your best when you feel like you haven’t got any margin for error. In fact, it’s easy, in such situations, to start gripping your stick a little too tightly.

This goes a long way toward explaining why the Caps were 3-0-1 against the Penguins in the regular season and jumped out to a 2-0 lead on them in this series. The Pens play to the Caps’ strengths - e.g., their ability to put the puck in the net - more than other opponents. Simply put, Ovechkin and Co. think they can outscore anybody.

And nothing that happened Wednesday night changes that. The big question is: Can the Penguins keep playing with the same desperate intensity - indeed, can any team? Besides, even when they summoned their best hockey of the series, it still took them more than 70 minutes, playing on their home ice, to subdue the Caps - on a bank shot off a defenseman.

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