By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
One of the season's largest crowds packed into Verizon Center last night to catch Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unfortunately for the home team, a large percentage of those fans wore black and gold -- and they weren't afraid to voice their allegiance.
At times, in fact, it sounded like a home game for the Penguins, who fought back from an early two-goal deficit, struck three times on the power play and skated off with a 4-3 victory, which clinched the franchise's first playoff berth since 2001.
"Obviously their fans have something to cheer about," said Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig, who finished with 25 saves. "They've had quite a turnaround from last season and they are playing good hockey."
Much of that stunning turnabout has to do with Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer. The dynamic 19-year-old had a goal, an assist and six shots for the Penguins, who also got a pair of goals from defenseman Ryan Whitney and 27 saves from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Ovechkin, meantime, set up the contest's first goal with a slick pass, but had an otherwise quiet night, despite skating 23 minutes 31 seconds. In his quest for a second straight season with at least 50 goals, the 21-year-old all-star remains stuck on 43 with five games remaining.
"They do great job on the power play, but five on five I think we beat them," Ovechkin said. "We played well today and we have lots of chances to score goals."
But they didn't, and now they've dropped four straight and 13 of the past 15. They also were swept by the Penguins in the season series for the first time (0-4).
With about two minutes remaining, Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon pulled Kolzig in favor of an extra attacker. The strategy paid off with 32 seconds left when defenseman Milan Jurcina scored to pull the Capitals within a goal. But they weren't able to squeeze another past Fleury, who stopped four of five Capitals' attempts in the waning moments.
"We're not the type of team that quits," Fleury said, before adding about the large contingent of Penguins fans, "That was pretty cool, to be on the road and see our fans traveling to watch us play."
When the teams hit the ice for warmups, the Capitals were booed by the out of towners in the sellout crowd of 18,277. When the Penguins emerged, Crosby was showered with chants of "M-V-P!"
One Penguins fan held up a sign that read, "25 Tickets: $975, Party Bus: $1,375, 30 More Years Beating the Caps: Priceless." Another lifted a poster board with the words, "Sid 4 MVP."
They didn't have much to cheer about early on, at least.
Alexander Semin put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at 5:59 of the first period, when he finished off a perfectly placed pass from Ovechkin.
And only 3:19 later, Boyd Gordon extended the Capitals' edge to 2-0 when he snagged Matt Pettinger's blocked shot in the slot and slipped it underneath Fleury.
Penguins Coach Michel Therrien called a timeout to settle down his players, and less than three minutes later, with the Penguins on the power play, Michel Ouellet fired a rebound past Kolzig to cut to the Capitals' lead in half.
The Capitals squandered a four-minute power play -- Kris Beech missed a wide-open net -- later in the first period, which ended with Washington still clinging to that one-goal edge.
But not for long. Whitney fired a Crosby pass past Kolzig on the power play at 1:10 of the second period to even things at 2. Then Crosby struck on a man advantage 5:11 later after he jammed in a loose puck during a scramble in front of the net. Kolzig was without his stick, which was knocked away during a tussle with Gary Roberts.
"We have to be a little tougher in front when your goalie doesn't have his stick," Kolzig said.
The Penguins continued to take the game to the Capitals, and they eventually made it 4-2 at 15:52. On the play, Capitals enforcer Donald Brashear squared off with Penguins heavyweight Georges Laraque just as the puck entered the net. The scrap was a disappointment, as two of the league's top fighters traded only a couple of punches before wrestling each other to the ice.
"I was really surprised the ref didn't blow the whistle earlier," said Laraque, who earned a fighting major and an assist on the play. "We got lucky on that one."