- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

Well, the Capitals can’t hang this one on Yanni. And fortunately for the Penguins, they won’t have to spend the offseason bemoaning the “career-ending” injury Sergei Gonchar suffered at the hands - or is it knees? - of Alex Ovechkin. Without so much as a trip to Lourdes, Gonchar managed to make it back for Wednesday night’s winner-take-all Game 7 at the Phone Booth.

And boy, did the Pens take all. They not only took the series with a 6-2 victory - not quite Bears 73, Redskins 0, but close enough - they also took the silverware, the candelabra, the Jumbo Screen and what was left of Simeon Varlamov’s youth.

The Kid, so brilliant against the Rangers and so brave for six games vs. the Pittsburgh Onslaught, got driven to the showers just 2:13 into the second period with the score 4-0 - and no end in sight. That brought in Jose Theodore, who had minded the Washington net for most of the regular season but had been confined to the bench after a leaky performance in the first round opener.

“He played great in the first period,” Brian Pothier said in Varly’s defense. “He gave us a chance to stay in the game. We just didn’t back him up. He’s been superhero in this series… and in the first one.”

He’ll get no argument here. If nothing else, the Capitals come out of this series knowing - not hoping, knowing - they have a goaltender they can stake their future on, a guy who can stand up against a hailstorm of pucks and won’t blink in even the brightest of spotlights.

As for the desperate switch back to Theodore, it was little more than a cosmetic change - unless, of course, Jose had a hat trick up his sleeve. No, this was the Pens’ night; this was the Pens’ series. Crosby 1, Ovechkin 0 - to be continued.

If there’s any silver lining for Capitals’ fans in a defeat of these proportions, it’s that. Sid won this one, but it ain’t over. This rivalry has a looong way to go. Magic Johnson’s Lakers, remember, lost their first series to Larry Bird’s Celtics - and then won the next two. Something tells me Ovechkin and Crosby, still in their early 20s, will collide in the playoffs a lot more than that… and will the NHL ever be glad.

The interest this series generated - locally, in North America and beyond - has been a boon to hockey and the reinvented NHL. And the two featured attractions didn’t disappoint, not only netting eight goals each but doing it in their diametrically opposed ways. Alex never stopped firing slappers at Marc-Andre Fleury, many from long range, while Sid was content to camp near the crease and flick rebounds past Varlamov.

“He’s not screening [for the shooter],” Chris Clark said. “He’s just in the right spot all the time. And he doesn’t get tied up [by defensemen]. There are going to be rebounds, and he cleans up on them.”

Ovie, ever the warrior, finally got the siren going for the Capitals near the end of the second period when Fleury mishandled the puck behind his net. But like Varly, he didn’t get much help from his supporting cast. So much for the idea that the Caps’ experience in seventh games - it was their third in the last two seasons, Crosby and Co.’s first - might give it an advantage.

But as Sid reminded everybody afterward, “We went to triple overtime in Detroit last year, were 30 seconds [35, actually] from being eliminated and found a way to stay in it.” And Wednesday night, the Penguins found a way to push the memory of Game 6 - and a blown third-period lead - out of their minds and put the Capitals away with finality.

Having the home ice in Game 7 never really became a factor for the Caps because they fell behind so unbelievably far so unbelievably fast. When you take the cowbell out of the game for the home club, it can feel like it’s playing four-on-five.

To their credit, though, the Rock the Red legions - most of them, anyway - stayed to the ugly end. (Granted, part of the reason might have been sheer catatonia. I mean, after six could-have-gone-either-way games, who saw this one coming?)

The Caps have made great progress these past few seasons, but they’ll look back on this ending with abject horror. After all, the playoffs this year are wide open, and whoever survived this series figured to have as good a shot at the Cup as anyone else in the Final Four.

The parity in the NHL right now, brought on by the salary cap and the dilution of talent in a league that now has 30 teams, is striking. (George McPhee, for his part, is trying to overcome it by hoarding Russians - Ovechkin, Semin, Fedorov, Kozlov, now Varlamov.) Three of the four series in the second round went the full seven games. Yup, it’s going to take a while for the Capitals to forgive themselves for whiffing on such an opportunity.

Games like this usually revolve around a few did-he-or-didn’t-he moments. The two that stand out in the first period, when the Penguins put their skates on the Caps’ throats by jumping out to a 2-0 lead, both went against the home team.

The first was a break-in by Ovechkin in the opening minutes, when the clubs had yet to work up a sweat and All Things Were Still Possible. He cut across the crease and tried to beat Fleury to his glove side, where the Caps have had success all series, but the Pens goalie snagged the puck. Huge.

“I kind of owed him a couple,” Fleury said. “He’d gotten some goals in this series.”

To which Crosby added, “He’s got a scary shot. Even when we had the lead tonight, we couldn’t relax for a moment out there.”

Later in the period, seconds after Sid had scored on the power play to make it 1-0, Craig Adams went in on the right wing and whipped a quick shot at Varlamov. It squeezed between The Kid’s pads and slid across the goal line. Equally huge. Reverse the outcome of those two plays, those two moments, and it’s 1-1 heading into the intermission. Instead, the Capitals gave themselves a huge mountain to climb.

It proved to be too high, too steep. Throughout the series, both teams had come back from deficits time and again, especially in the third period, but not on this occasion. On this occasion, the Caps had no answers, only questions that will haunt them in the months ahead.

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