By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009
BOSTON, Feb. 28 -- Alexander Semin was out of breath and headed to the bench for a line change. But before he did, the Washington Capitals' winger wound up and fired a slap shot from a few strides over center ice on Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the league's leader in save percentage and goals against average.
Even Semin couldn't fathom what would happen next: his dump-in from about 70 feet -- the puck also appeared to be going a smidge wide of the goal -- ended up hitting Thomas, then somehow squeezing past him 22 seconds into overtime to lift the Capitals to a 4-3 victory in the final regular season meeting between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
"Nine times out of ten, he'll deke nine guys before shooting," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Semin. "But I'm glad he did it."
Semin's unlikely goal, his 24th of the season, gave the Capitals a 3-0-1 record in four games against the Bruins, trimmed Boston's lead in the conference to eight points with 19 games remaining for both teams, and left Boston Coach Claude Julien fuming.
Washington also received goals from Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Tomas Fleischmann as well as 34 saves from José Theodore. But all anyone wanted to talk about afterward was Semin's winner, which sent the Capitals' bench into a delirious celebration and stunned a capacity crowd at TD Banknorth Garden.
I "was tired and trying to shoot the puck in the zone," Semin said through Ovechkin, who interpreted for his fellow Russian. I "was a little surprised, but sometimes it happens."
Thomas, a two-time all-star known for his spectacular if unconventional saves, said the puck's trajectory fooled him.
"That was one of the luckiest shots I've ever seen," said Thomas, who stopped three breakaways and 28 shots but fell to 9-2-2 all time against the Capitals. "It was about three inches off the ice until it was halfway to me. Then it just started to lift."
Semin's fluky goal capped another hard-fought and entertaining game between a pair of rivals many expect to cross paths again in the conference finals in May. Three of the teams' meetings were decided by one goal, two of them in overtime. The only game decided by more than a goal -- a 3-1 Capitals win on Dec. 10 -- included an empty-net goal.
Julien scoffed when asked whether the Capitals had gained a mental advantage by winning three of the four meetings.
"I've heard them say that they're in our heads," he said. "They do a lot of talking. They're one-goal games. They could have gone either way. By all means, I don't think they scare us."
The score was tied 2-2 entering the third period. That changed when Fleischmann's attempted centering pass to Ovechkin hit the toe of Dennis Wideman's skate and slipped past Thomas at 2 minutes 20 seconds.
"I needed some luck, and I had some on this goal," said Fleischmann, who scored for the first time in eight games and second in 18.
But Fleischmann's goal left the Bruins with plenty of time. And with the help of the Capitals and their well-documented problems with taking penalties, Boston did just that.
The Capitals killed off the Bruins' first two advantages of the third, but when Backstrom was whistled for slashing with 5 minutes 8 seconds left to play, the law of averages caught up to them. On the ensuing power play, Boston captain Zdeno Chara snapped a shot from the middle of the circle past Theodore on the short side to knot the score at 3 and force overtime.
Semin's unlikely goal, though, bailed out both Backstrom and Theodore.
"I had bad memories from the last time I was here," Backstrom said with a smile. The splendid second-year center was in the penalty box in overtime of the teams' previous meeting, a 3-2 Boston win. "I feel much better right now."
Theodore, meantime, was outstanding for most of the game. But he acknowledged that he should have stopped Chara's shot, which sneaked under his arm.
"I didn't think he had room," Theodore said. "Chara has a hard shot. It's my job to respect a guy like that and challenge a little bit more."
The first period began much the way the teams' last meeting did -- with Marc Savard taking a penalty and the Capitals scoring on the ensuing power play. This time, Savard was sent off for hooking Semin, and Backstrom fired a rebound (off a shot by Semin) past Thomas about a minute later.
Backstrom's goal, his 17th, extended his point streak to nine games and marked the fourth straight game the Capitals have scored the first goal of the game on the power play.
But a defensive breakdown allowed the Bruins to get the goal right back. Boston's Matt Hunwick sneaked undetected to the side of the Capitals net and then fired a slick pass from Savard underneath Theodore at 5:03.
Thomas was dominant in the second period, but he was unable to stop Ovechkin's blast from the circle. Ovechkin netted his league-leading 45th with a shot that simply was too much for Thomas to handle.
But once again, the Capitals couldn't hold on. Only 18 seconds later, Phil Kessel cut to the net and redirected Savard's cross-ice pass from the point between Theodore's pads to tie the game at 2.
"We still have 19 games," Ovechkin said. "Anything can happen."