By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Whenever Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in the same building, there exists the distinct possibility for a play so incredible, so unbelievable that it must be seen twice before it makes any sense.
That play happened yesterday at sold-out Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals hung on for an exhilarating 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. But it was produced by a 21-year-old rookie who wasn't even in the NHL two months ago.
With the score tied at 2 late in the second period -- a situation created in part to a soft goal he had allowed -- Simeon Varlamov made sure the game stayed knotted by diving back and using the heel of his stick to sweep a shot by Crosby off the goal line as Crosby raised his arm to celebrate.
"That's got to be the highlight of the year, it's got to be," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "That's a tap-in. I was out there and I seen it. Nothing made sense. I could see the net, so I was circling back to the bench. I thought I was a minus."
Varlamov stopped the next 13 shots he faced, and Tomas Fleischmann scored the winner at 1 minute 46 seconds of the third period to lift the Capitals to their fourth straight win in the playoffs, tying a franchise record. Varlamov finished with 34 saves.
David Steckel and Ovechkin also scored for the Capitals, and Alexander Semin helped set up a pair with sneaky slap passes.
But all anyone wanted to talk about afterward was the momentum-turning save no one could believe.
"There was no other option left to me," Varlamov said through an interpreter, his arms crossed as he exuded calm and cool. "I had to play it with my stick. If he put the puck anywhere else, it would have been in the net. So I guess it was lucky."
Crosby said: "I didn't get a lot on it. I just tried to direct it into the net. He kind of made a desperation save. You end up losing the game, 3-2, and you don't want to say, 'What if?' "
As big a save as it was, Varlamov owed his teammates that stop, so said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau. About five minutes before the Save, Varlamov yielded a goal even he described as soft. Pittsburgh's Mark Eaton, a light-scoring defenseman, had beaten Varlamov from 60 feet with an ordinary slap shot to even the score at 2.
"It was an unlucky break," forward Brooks Laich said of Eaton's strike. "Sometimes as players, we miss open nets and such. When it happens to a goalie, it results in a goal. But then he makes highway robbery on Crosby. After he gave up that goal, he never lost his composure."
Boudreau added: "He owed us one. He let a floater go in from the point. But he made a great save. There's no doubt. Goalies are taught to never give up. They keep fighting. And that's the only way the [Martin] Brodeurs, the [Tim] Thomases, the [Roberto] Luongos look like they make great saves, it's because they never quit on the puck. It was obviously the turning point because they would have had the lead and we would have had to play catch-up."
Varlamov was named the first star for the third time since replacing veteran José Theodore after Game 1 in the quarterfinals. He leads the league in several statistical categories in the playoffs, including victories (five), goals against average (1.29) and shutouts (two).
His performance yesterday was critical on an afternoon that got off to a rough start for the Capitals.
Following a seven-day break after wrapping up the first round, the Penguins came out fast and took an early lead on a beautiful goal by Crosby that began with an even prettier pass by Bill Guerin. Tied up along the wall with defenseman John Erskine, Guerin tapped the puck out to Crosby, who snagged it at full speed, blasted into the offensive zone, made a strong move to the middle and whipped a wrist shot past Varlamov's glove only 4:09 in.
Three minutes later, the Penguins held a 6-0 edge in shots and were threatening to blow open the game. But a mistake by Marc-André Fleury (23 saves) a few minutes later gave the Capitals the boost they needed.
Matt Bradley dumped the puck on the net from the corner. Fleury stuck out his blocker, sending the rebound up the slot to Steckel, who jammed the puck in at 13:50 to even the score, 1-1, and turn the momentum.
"I think it was a wake-up call," Steckel said of his first goal of these playoffs. "We were getting our [butts] handed to us, pretty much. It was a joke. I don't know if it was because it was an afternoon, [but] we didn't come ready to play."
Then a mental miscue by Matt Cooke, the Penguins' agitator and a former Capital, helped Washington take a 2-1 lead. With Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar already in the penalty box for delay of the game, Cooke went after Ovechkin -- who had just crushed him along the boards -- in search of retribution. Instead, Cooke got a hooking penalty, giving the Capitals a 59-second, five-on-three advantage.
Moments later, Semin sent a slap pass to a wide-open Ovechkin, who fired the puck into a vacated net at 17:03. The Penguins, meantime, did not record a shot on goal for the final 6:31 of the period.
The Capitals' dominance continued early in the second period, but Fleury kept the Penguins in it. He stoned Ovechkin and Bradley and got lucky when Ovechkin rang another off the post.
Then came Eaton's soft goal followed by Varlamov's eye-popping stop on Crosby, who bemoaned the Penguins' inability to finish their chances, a failure underscored by Pittsburgh's power play going 0 for 5 and, of course, his failure with 1:59 remaining in the second period.
"I was stunned," Laich said of Varlamov's save on Crosby. "I was like, 'Oh my God!' I was amazed. I saw Crosby and I was like, 'Oh, that's in.' But then Varlamov just reaches back and grabs it and the whole bench was like, 'Wow, that's our break, let's get going, we've got to smarten up and play better.' Incredible."