By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, April 21 -- All season, the Washington Capitals have been counted out. It happened when they started out 6-14-1. It happened when Philadelphia took a three games to one lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last week, and again when the Flyers pushed them to the edge of extinction in Game 6.
Each time, though, Alex Ovechkin and his teammates have stunned their doubters -- and Monday night was no exception. The Capitals scored four straight goals -- Ovechkin notched two of them in the third period -- to win 4-2 and force a seventh and decisive game in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
"Nobody believe in us, that we're a done team," said Ovechkin, who led the NHL in goals and points in the regular season but had been limited to a goal and four assists in the series' first five games until breaking out with his team's season on the line. "But it's not over. Tomorrow will be the biggest game in our career. We won't stop, we just want to continue what we do right now."
Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the Capitals will play the sixth Game 7 in franchise history and attempt to become only the 21st team in the history of the National Hockey League to come all the way back from a three-games-to-one deficit. They rallied from down 3-1 to beat the Flyers in 1988 and are 1-4 all-time in Game 7s. If the Capitals win, they will face postseason nemesis Pittsburgh in the next round.
"My experience is that we've won nothing," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We know how resilient they are. They had a hard schedule coming down the stretch and they won when they had to."
The coaching staff "told our team that they had five minutes to be happy," Boudreau said after the game. "Then it's business as usual. If we think we've won it, we're going to be in for a bad shock."
Early on in the game Monday night, it appeared the Capitals were about to experience one of those bad shocks. Facing elimination, they trailed the Flyers, 2-0, after power-play goals by Mike Richards and Daniel Brière.
But the Capitals didn't fold when they were in last place in the NHL. And they didn't Monday, either. Linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin each tallied in the second period to send the game into the third tied at 2.
That's when Ovechkin showed once again why he's the leading candidate to earn league MVP honors. He broke the tie on a breakaway goal at 2 minutes 46 seconds, then clinched the win with a one-timer on the power play at 10:41. He finished with a series-high nine shots on goal.
"Well, we had no doubts in this room," said goaltender Cristobal Huet, who was solid in making 33 saves. "It's good for him and for his confidence."
Boudreau added: "I was so happy for him because you could see that he was starting to get a little bit frustrated and they were doing such a good job on him. But he persevered."
The third period began with Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn ringing a shot off the post. That would have put the Flyers ahead 3-2. But instead, moments later, a deflected puck landed on the stick of Viktor Kozlov, who sent a pass straight up the middle to Ovechkin. The 22-year-old Russian split Flyers defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Coburn, the players who were largely responsible for keeping him in check through the first five games. Ovechkin burst into the zone, froze Flyers goalie Martin Biron with his signature leg lift, then snapped the puck into the upper corner over the goalie's glove.
Biron made 36 saves in the game.
Ovechkin then stretched the Capitals' lead to 4-2. He one-timed a cross-ice pass from Brooks Laich past Biron before the goaltender could get across the crease.
Just like that, Ovechkin had put his postseason struggles behind him and put the Capitals one win away from advancing to the second round for the first time in a decade.
"Seventh game, it's just go," Boudreau said. "Their team and our team are going to be very tired. But I think you'll see character in the oodles."
The Flyers failed for the second time in three days to close out the series. "We got the start we wanted, we got the lead," Philadelphia Coach John Stevens said. "It's an opportunity that we have let slip away. We will find out what we are made of tomorrow."
There had been one constant in the first five games of the series: The team that scored first went on to win the game. But not Monday.
Richards scored at 3:49 on the power play first thanks to a fortunate bounce off the end boards to put the Flyers ahead 1-0.
The first period ended with Semin taking a retaliatory cross checking penalty on Lasse Kukkonen. The Flyers made him pay for that indiscretion at the start of the second.
Brière scored his sixth goal of the playoffs when he snapped a shot from the middle of the circle past Huet to put the Flyers ahead 2-0 at 1:18. Huet was screened by R.J. Umberger on the shot.
But the Flyers let up momentarily and the Capitals seized their chance.
Backstrom completed one of the team's prettiest scoring plays of the season at 9:34 to cut their deficit to 2-1. Laich (two assists) took the puck into the zone and dropped it for Semin, who dished the puck to Backstrom, who returned it to Semin, who gave it back to Backstrom, who ripped it past Biron.
All of a sudden, the Flyers were reeling and the Capitals were the aggressors.
Semin then picked a fine time to redeem himself for his penalty. Biron stopped Erskine's point shot, but was unable to squeeze the puck in his glove. When he dropped it, Semin snapped it in at 18:03 to send the game into the third period tied, setting up Ovechkin's heroics.
"I've said before that the guys who are stars, everything seems to happen around them," Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "Whether it's John Elway on the drive or a great baseball player coming up to bat in the last inning, that's Alex."