- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

The first six games of this Eastern Conference semifinal series were an epic showdown between two great, young teams chock full of superior talent.

Too bad the same cannot be said for Game 7.

One of the most anticipated NHL games of this decade turned into a laugher, and the nightmare scenario for longtime fans of the Washington Capitals played out like it has so many times before. The Pittsburgh Penguins came to sold-out Verizon Center and dominated the Caps in a 6-2 victory to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

“It was definitely anticlimactic,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It certainly wasn’t the way I would have envisioned it or scripted it. Whether we won or lost, I never would have thought it would have ended up in a game like it was tonight.”

Perhaps the No. 1 villain in this town, Sidney Crosby, got it started in the first period, and he added an exclamation point with a breakaway in the third. Alex Ovechkin had a goal for the Caps, but the lack of a celebration from a guy famous for exclamations of exuberance told the story because his team already was down five goals.

“No answers, and I am very disappointed,” Ovechkin said. “They played better.”

This is the seventh time in eight postseason meetings between the two rivals that Pittsburgh has ended Washington’s season. The two clubs hadn’t played since 2001, and with no players remaining from then, this was going to be different for the Caps - especially because the team went 3-0-1 against the Penguins in the regular season and earned the right to host Wednesday’s game by being the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, playoff hero Simeon Varlamov lasted less than 23 minutes, and the Capitals’ quest for a Stanley Cup ended just one round deeper into the postseason than it did last year. The Penguins are now four wins against either the Boston Bruins or Carolina Hurricanes from returning to the finals for the second straight season.

“It was very upsetting and disappointing,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “That team out on the ice wasn’t our team. It wasn’t what we call Caps hockey.”

For the third time in this series, Crosby had the first goal of the contest. With the Penguins on the power play, Sergei Gonchar sent the puck toward the net off his back foot. It hit a Caps defender in front and then Crosby in the right skate just to the right of the goal, and he was able to guide it in before Varlamov could react.

It was Crosby’s seventh goal of the series and 11th of the postseason. He later added No. 12 on a breakaway to break a tie with Ovechkin for the most in the playoffs. When the two megastars met at center ice, the 2008 league MVP told the 2007 winner “to go win the Stanley Cup.”

“I just said, ‘Great series,’ ” Crosby said. “There was a lot of eyes on this series, and it was a battle from both teams. Individually, we both wanted to make sure we made a good job, and he’s a great hockey player. He’s got a scary shot.”

Gonchar had missed the previous two games because of a knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin in Game 4, but he returned to practice Tuesday and was in the lineup Wednesday night.

Craig Adams made it a 2-0 contest eight seconds later. Brian Pothier tried to chip the puck out along the wall, but it was denied at the blue line, and the puck came to Adams in the right circle. He put a shot under Varlamov’s left arm for his first goal of this postseason.

Just 29 seconds into the middle period, Crosby hit Bill Guerin with a perfect drop pass, and he extended the lead to 3-0. Evgeni Malkin sent a pass to Kris Letang for a blast from the top of the right circle at 2:12, and the 21-year-old Varlamov’s night was over.

Turning to Jose Theodore, who hadn’t played since Game 1 of the first-round series against the New York Rangers, didn’t stop the onslaught. Jordan Staal jammed a shot from the top of the crease past Theodore at 11:37 - Pittsburgh’s fifth goal in a span of 19 minutes.

Ovechkin and Laich scored for the Caps with Crosby’s breakaway sandwiched in between, but the final period, played in front of a slowly evaporating crowd, possessed little of the skill and intensity that made the first six games of this series so fantastic.

“The reason they won the game is they outworked us,” Laich said. “It is very hard to stand here in front of [the media] and say that. We’ve been outworked in our building in a Game 7. That’s not something that is easy to say, and I’m sure we’re going to have to think about that for a long time.”

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