- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH | It was hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins being able to match the effort Friday night they put forth in the previous contest, and they didn’t.

But not only did the Washington Capitals also fail to match their play, they were also worse — and this Eastern Conference semifinal series is all square through four games. Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh, and young Simeon Varlamov had his first off night of these playoffs in a 5-3 defeat at a sold-out Mellon Arena.

The Caps cut a two-goal deficit in half with the lone goal of the second period, but there were far too many defensive breakdowns in the final 20 minutes for the team to complete the comeback. Now the series shifts back to Verizon Center for a pivotal Game 5 just 24 hours after the puck was first dropped Friday night.

“I think we played some good hockey, but we can’t make those mistakes against these guys because they are too good and they will make you pay,” Caps forward Matt Bradley said. “There were a couple of mental lapses, but otherwise I thought we played a pretty solid. Against a team like that, you just can’t make those little mistakes.”

Varlamov entered the night with the top goals-against average and second-best save percentage among playoff goalies, but he yielded five goals on 28 shots. The 21-year-old rookie did make several great saves to erase a few breakdowns, but he also let in three shots that he had would have had little trouble with in his previous nine starts in these playoffs.

“He struggled,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who also didn’t hesitate to say Varlamov will be in net Saturday night. “He’s human, and he hasn’t had a bad game. … He’ll bounce back. He’s a competitive guy.”

Crosby gave the Penguins a two-goal lead 4:16 into the final period when he one-timed a pass from Miroslav Satan past rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov. The Penguins had a two-on-one on the play, and Satan slipped the puck between defenseman John Erskine’s legs to Crosby for the easy tap-in.

Milan Jurcina got Washington back within one a little more than two minutes later. Jurcina’s blast from outside the right circle came with Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik inside the net.

But when Mike Green skated around the Penguins’ net and tried to center the puck, it turned into a breakout for Pittsburgh and Max Talbot added the insurance marker with 5:14 remaining.

“I’m not the type of person that doesn’t deny the thoughts that go through all of our heads. We didn’t know for certain that we were going to win two games [at home],” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We believed we could. We thought we could play better and we thought we could take care of some areas where we made some mistakes.

“We thought we could get to the offensive zone more and give ourselves a chance to win some hockey games.”

For the second consecutive game, the Caps scored on the first shot of the game. Alexander Semin intercepted a stretch pass intended for Evgeni Malkin and then found Nicklas Backstrom going in the other direction. Backstrom’s slap shot from the top of the left circle beat Fleury 36 seconds into the opening period.

Chris Clark went to the penalty box 82 seconds later, and Penguins capitalized. Just as the penalty was about to expire, Sergei Gonchar skated the puck into the zone and no one picked him up, so he blasted one past Varlamov at 3:55.

Bill Guerin put Pittsburgh in front midway through the period. Alone in front of the net, Crosby caught a pass from Chris Kunitz with his glove. Varlamov proceeded to make two great saves on the Penguins captain, but Guerin swooped in unmarked to deposit the second rebound at 10:47.

Thirty seconds after Alex Ovechkin was sent to the box for a knee-on-knee hit with Gonchar, who left the game and did not return, Ruslan Fedotenko snapped a relatively harmless-looking shot at Varlamov. The rookie netminder didn’t snare it, however, and the Penguins had a four-on-four goal and a two-goal lead.

Washington did slice the lead in half with an even-strength tally at 15:08. Green weaved through the defense before putting a shot on net from inside the right circle. Fleury didn’t handle it cleanly, and Clark was in the crease behind the goalie to knock in the rebound for his first goal of this postseason.

“I don’t think we change anything,” Clark said. “Now it is a best-of-three series, and if we had known that going into the series I thought we would be in a good position.”

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