- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Why not a seventh game between the Capitals and Penguins? Heck, why not an eighth game? Why not keep playing until Gary Bettman says stop - which may be never?

They’ve had at each other for 10 days now, the Caps and the Pens, and it’s still too close to call. Just look at the scores - 3-2, 4-3, 3-2 (overtime), 5-3 (it was 4-3 late), 4-3 (more OT) and, Monday night, 5-4 at Mellon Arena on an overtime goal by third-liner David Steckel that sent the series back to Washington for resolution.

And if that doesn’t settle things, maybe it’ll go to the Supreme Court.

I, personally, wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a matchup - Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, the present and future of the NHL on glorious display - that deserves to go the distance. No matter what happens Wednesday at the Phone Booth, it will be, without question, one of the most memorable events in Washington sports history.

It’s just a question of whether those memories, from a D.C. standpoint, will be happy or… the other kind, the kind Capitals followers are all too familiar with. (Of course, Caps followers were all too familiar with losing overtime playoff games - seven straight - before Steckel broke the string Monday night.)

“It’s going to be hard for them to come back in our building because the fans are going to be crazy,” Ovechkin said, “… and we’re going to be flying, too.”

But if there’s anything this series has taught us, it’s to wait until all the votes are tallied, until the last second has ticked off the clock. Consider: In Game 5, both teams blew a lead in the third period - and in Game 6, both teams did it again.

“It’s been like that the whole series,” Mike Green said. “We get up, they come back. They get up, we come back. Mentally, it’s been a roller coaster.”

A roller coaster along the lines of the Cyclone at Coney Island - the kind where it’s hard to keep food down.

At the start of the evening, the Capitals looked like a beaten hockey club, a club more despairing than desperate. When you get outshot 18-5 in the first period of a no-tomorrow game, it suggests rather strongly that You’re There But You Aren’t There - even if you’re behind only 1-0.

It might have been the Caps’ worst 20 minutes of hockey in the series. They played like a team that couldn’t convince itself it still had a chance to win. After three straight losses, two in overtime on shots that went in off their own sticks, Bruce Boudreau’s boys looked to be running on emotional empty.

But then came the second period and goals barely eight minutes apart by Viktor Kozlov and Tomas Fleischmann, and suddenly the Igloo crowd - which had been booing Alex Ovechkin with great gusto every time he touched the puck - briefly lost its voice. Perhaps, too, the fans were thinking back to Game 5 of the Flyers series, when the home team had a chance to close it out and got smoked 3-0.

These Pens are good, don’t get me wrong - good enough to make the finals a year ago - but they’re not exactly a club for the ages. And in their relentless quest for ever more goals, they’ve been known to give up a few. (Translation: No lead is safe when you play them - your lead or their lead.)

That’s why, despite outplaying the Capitals for long stretches the last two weeks, the Penguins have had trouble putting them away. If your defense errs even slightly, the Caps have the firepower to make you pay for it - firepower up front with Ovechkin and friends and firepower from the blue line with Green (despite his recent struggles).

Unfortunately for the Capitals, the good times in this series have never lasted very long. Near the end of the second period, Brian Pothier took a tripping penalty in the defensive end, and that led to a tying goal by Mark Eaton.

Another penalty against the Caps early in the third, this one charged to Steckel, produced a goal by Kris Letang and a 3-2 Pittsburgh edge. But the fun was just beginning. Brooks Laich scored his first goal of the series 58 seconds later on the power play to deadlock it again, and 29 seconds after that, while the locals were still processing the previous bit of information, Kozlov beat Marc-Andre Fleury for the second time of the night to make it 4-3.

Did THAT settle the issue? Hardly. Crosby, after multiple whacks at the puck, necessitated the third OT game of the series by sneaking one past Varlamov with 4:18 to go in regulation.

Boudreau, well aware of the Capitals’ near-hopeless history in these extra sessions, tried to keep it upbeat during the intermission. His message to his players, he said, was: “It’s our turn. The law of averages is: It’s our turn. For one night, anyway, it worked.”

The more you watch these two teams, the more you realize not just how even they are but how alike they are. At times, they almost seem like Xeroxes of each other in their strengths, their weaknesses and their incredible flair for the dramatic - which has brought us to the best possible place: a seventh game.

“This is so good for the game,” said Boudreau, “when the best players can shine on a bright stage like this. I just wish it was for the Cup.”

It would have been quite the Cup finals, no question. But any time Ovechkin and Crosby face off - first round, last round or any round in between - is a blessing from the hockey gods.

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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