- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH

The Capitals couldn’t blame this one on the officiating - or on the quality of the ice, if they were so inclined. As for Yanni, whose concert at Mellon Arena next week messed up the scheduling for the series, he’s Saturday’s excuse du jour should the Caps lose the second of these pivotal back-to-back games they’re in the midst of.

No, Friday night’s less-than-sterling performance at the Igloo, resulting in a 5-3 loss to the Penguins and a suddenly dead-even series, was all on Bruce Boudreau’s Bunch. All the problems that dogged the Capitals in the first three games - turnovers, trouble getting the puck out of their own end and repeated failure to clear it from in front of the crease - killed them even worse in Game 4.

Throw in Simeon Varlamov’s first shaky effort of the postseason - “arguably four soft goals out of five,” in Boudreau’s estimation - and you have a full-fledged crisis. (Though not as full-fledged, maybe, as being down 3-1 to the Rangers in the first round.)

Does this team look tired to you? It looks tired to me. The Pens seem to have more energy, seem to have That Extra Step. They were in full attack mode for both games in Pittsburgh, buzzing around the Washington goal and creating chances by the Zamboni-load. The Capitals, on the other hand, looked to be skating backward much of the time. Not a good sign with the series being reduced to a best-of-three affair - and the next meeting awaiting Saturday.

“It’ll be nice to be back home,” said Matt Bradley, who assisted on the last Caps score. “It’ll be nice to have the cheers for us instead of for them.”

Absolutely. But it would be even nicer if the Capitals did more to be cheered for. Somewhere in the short turnaround period, they have to come up with some answers - many of which, I suspect, can be obtained by looking in the mirror.

I mean, come on, the Caps are better than this. Four games into the series, they’ve yet to put together 60 solid minutes, which is what it generally takes to win in the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin has vast amounts of willpower, but they can’t get by on that alone. He’s not, after all, going to put it in the net in every game. Indeed, in this game he managed just two shots on Marc-Andre Fleury.

“Alex is only human,” Boudreau said. “He can’t be unbelievable every night. It’s like [great] baseball players. They’re not going to hit a home run every night.”

Ovechkin made his biggest impact Friday night when he crashed into former Capital Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins’ best defenseman, who had gotten the home team’s first goal not long before. It wasn’t a dirty play. Ovechkin, as is his wont, was trying to deliver a blow with his shoulder, and Gonchar, having strong self-preservation instincts, wisely avoided it. But their knee-on-knee collision landed Alex in the penalty box (for tripping) and Gonchar in a heap on the ice, from which he had to be helped to the locker room, never to return.

This gave the Igloo fans something else to boo Ovechkin about every time he touched the puck - not that they’ve ever needed much provocation. Ovie’s willingness to partake of the physical part of the game clearly confounds a lot of folks. Top goal scorers are apparently supposed to leave that stuff to others - their bodyguards, perhaps - but Alex has always been happy to run his own interference. That’s why you’ll find his name among the league leaders not just for goals but for hits.

Here’s an interesting stat: The Capitals and Penguins have met eight times this season, and Friday night was the first game the Pens have won in the regulation. (Game 3 went into overtime, and their one victory in the regular season came in a shootout.) It’s pretty unusual, you have to admit, especially considering how much they’ve controlled the puck in this series - controlled the puck, that is, without really controlling the scoreboard.

On Friday night the Penguins led 3-1 at the end of the first period and 4-2 early in the third, but goals by Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina, the latter short-handed, kept the Caps close - closer, you could argue, than they deserved to be. It didn’t become a fait accompli until just 5:14 remained, when the Washington defense broke down for the last time and Varlamov was left at the mercy of Maxime Talbot, flying in on the wing against token resistance.

By then, of course, the Capitals were heavily into risk-taking, trying to get the equalizer. While we’re on the subject of Varly, by the way, allow me to balance Boudreau’s assessment of The Kid with this defense offered by Bradley: “A couple of those goals [he gave up] were rolling pucks. Those are tough to save. They look easy, but they’re almost like a knuckleball in baseball.”

All these baseball analogies. Could it be because these two games in two nights feel like a doubleheader?

The most important thing for the Caps to remember at this point is that the series is merely tied. They still have the home-ice advantage. As Brooks Laich put it, “If you’d told us before the series it would be 2-2 [after four games], we would have thought we were in good shape.”

Gonchar’s future availability is another X-factor. When he was recovering from an injury in the first 50-odd games of the season, the Penguins were barely a .500 club. In the last three months, though, they’ve played much more like the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago.

If he’s unable to play the rest of the series - or to play at his accustomed level - can the Pens persevere? Or will that be what tips the scales back in the Caps’ direction? We should have a better idea Saturday night.

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