- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

An own goal. The Capitals have added an own goal to their luckless, lamentable playoff history against the Penguins.

You’d think they’d suffered enough, losing six of their first seven series with the Pens, but now they have the sight - sure to be a recurring nightmare - of Tom Poti sliding in front of the Washington goal and redirecting Evgeni Malkin’s pass past Simeon Varlamov at the end of a power play to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 overtime win in a critical Game 5.

Who, outside of Wes Craven - and the Penguins, I mean - could have dreamed up something this gruesome?

Now the Pens can close it out at home Monday night - after being ever so close to elimination themselves when they dropped the first two games and went into OT in the third. And all because, as Sidney Crosby said, they “found a way to get it done. … These games come down to mistakes and bounces, and we’ve been able to make a few less of them.”

Mistakes, that is. In the bounces department, they’re doing pretty well for themselves. Their game-winner in Game 3 went in off Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, but at least that one came on an Actual Shot. Malkin’s, on the other hand…

“You work hard for those breaks,” Crosby went on. “That’s just the way hockey goes.”

It’s OK to say you were lucky, Sid. It won’t keep you out of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Alex Ovechkin, who scored twice in another brilliant performance, promised “we’re going to come back here [to Verizon Center] again for Game 7,” but what else could he say at such a moment? This much is certain: They won’t be back if they don’t play better than they did in their first trip to Pittsburgh, when the Pens pushed them around for the most part, despite the closeness of the scores.

Early on, it looked like the Capitals had done everything they needed to do to win the game. Of course, about all you need to do to win a game in this matchup of megastars is let the other team score first.

Putting the first puck in the net has been an invitation to disaster thus far. The team that had jumped out to a 1-0 lead was 0-4 in the series before Saturday night. It defies all logic, all probability, but there you have it, the First Commandment of Caps-Pens 2009: Thou shalt not light the red lamp first.

So the Capitals gladly allowed a Jordan Staal goal with 5:17 gone in the second period and, sure enough, they were ahead 2-1 by the intermission. Ovechkin got them even with a blast into the top right corner, and then Nicklas Backstrom put a wrister in the same spot - but from much closer range - on the power play.

The Caps had gotten the man advantage when the Pens were caught with an extra skater on the ice. Maybe that was Pittsburgh’s plan for dealing with the fatigue of playing two games in two nights - sneak another guy out there every now and then when the officials aren’t looking.

But the Capitals’ strategy started to go awry in the first few minutes of the final period. Pesky Ruslan Fedotenko rifled a shot past Simeon Varlamov to tie it, and a short time later Matt Cooke, the former Cap, put the Penguins in front with a third-chance poke at the puck. (Staal and Tyler Kennedy had the earlier cracks at it.) It took Ovechkin’s second goal of the night with 4:08 left in regulation, a veritable layup off a feed from Backstrom, to restore the Caps’ pulse.

For those worried about the Capitals’ mental state Saturday night after the two losses in Pittsburgh, Bruce Boudreau’s bruisers produced their most energetic first period of the series. Their exertions didn’t lead to any goals, but they didn’t give up any, either - and they did manage keep the puck in the offensive end much more than they had at Mellon Arena.

Boudreau, searching for answers, had Backstrom centering the top line of Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov - perhaps because the coach was concerned about Sergei Fedorov’s ability to recover quickly after playing a game just 24 hours earlier. Twenty-one-year-old legs, after all, tend to be more resilient than 39-year-old legs - unless the 39-year-old legs belong to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The Phone Booth crowd must have been relieved to see that Ovechkin was still a free man after his much-publicized fender bender with the Penguins’ Sergei Gonchar in Game 4. Alex wasn’t even weighted down by one of those ankle bracelets they give to stalkers and people on home detention. That’s not to say he won’t be punished in the next few days - a $2,500 fine would be a suitable slap on the wrist - but a suspension would be a bigger crime than the “crime” itself.

Pay no attention to the shrieking coming out of the Steel City - or out of the Pittsburgh locker room, for that matter. Ovechkin’s “offense” doesn’t even compare to what the Penguins’ Shawn McEachern did to Capitals’ defenseman Calle Johansson in the 1994 playoffs. Pens fans, in their outrage at the loss of Gonchar, are exhibiting a selective memory.

Part of the reason they’ve “forgotten,” no doubt, is that ‘94 is the only time the Caps have beaten the Penguins in the playoffs. Anyway, in the sixth and final game, as a parting shot, McEachern slashed Johansson in the back of the legs and incapacitated him for the rest of the postseason. The nerve damage was so extensive that it was months before Calle got the feeling back in his legs.

Without one of their top defensemen, a guy who played 17 years in the NHL at a very high level, the Capitals were eliminated in the next round. McEachern’s wound up having to sit out three games, but not until the next season - and obviously, it didn’t impact at all on the Pens playoffwise. NHL VP Brian Burke, the Colin Campbell of that era, went as far as make excuses for McEachern when the penalty was announced.

“The blow… was not vicious nor intended to injure,” he said. “However, his actions did have unfortunate consequences.”

Yeah, Brian, consequences like Calle couldn’t walk normally for two months.

(Boy, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a vicious blow.)

Thought Ovie’s roughing up of Gonchar deserved a little historical perspective. I mean, at least Ovie was looking him in the eye when he barreled into him. He didn’t whack his opponent when he had his back turned, like the pusillanimous McEachern did.

Not that that will matter when the series returns to Pittsburgh. Ovechkin will still be Public Enemy No. 1 at Igloo.



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