Thomas Boswell on Game 1 of the Capitals-Penguins Series

The Washington Capitals walk away from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, May 3, 2009

In just one tense afternoon, the plot between the Capitals and Penguins has already been set. Hold on. If this is mere preamble, then what is in store for us? Only one game, a 3-2 Caps win at Verizon Center, was needed to establish the major and minor themes for a series that now has no ceiling and, after such a start, may reach for the heavens.

As might be hoped, both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the NHL's explosive fire and stylish ice, scored goals. Their youthful confrontation for the title of best player on the planet will take a decade to decide. However, the issue of first blood has been decided. And the Caps drew it.

Washington won because it did not crumble in the face of a brilliant Pittsburgh onslaught to start the game, trailing only 1-0, not by some far more gruesome margin. The Caps won because they got secondary scoring -- so often the decisive margin when glamour teams collide -- from David Steckel and Tomas Fleischmann. And they won because their rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, 21, made an amazing last-inch save -- one that Owner Ted Leonsis said "will be replayed for years and years."

And the kid made that save on none other than Crosby, Sid the Kid himself.

This could easily have been a day when the Pens dealt Washington a numbing blow. With a week's rest, Pittsburgh stormed the Caps, utterly dominated the first 10 minutes, turned a cacophonous home crowd to stony silence and held an 11-2 advantage in shots.

"Were we nervous, awestruck? The hype before this game was quite wild for some of our young players," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. If anything, Ovechkin was even more worried, saying: "Were we shaking? Thank God we only give them one goal."

Every Cap understood that, while they could not win this series with a single victory, they could go a long ways toward losing it if they let the Pens take control. "We didn't want to get behind in a series against a team that good that had a week's rest," said Steckel, who was wearing a red hardhat given to the game's hardest worker. "They took it to us in the first period. And they did it again in the second period."

The strategy was perfect. Except it didn't quite work. "We know what we'd just gone through" in a seven-game series that ended Tuesday, Boudreau said. "This team is better, no disrespect to the Rangers. They come at you and come at you. There's no way, if we go down 0-2 at home, that we could duplicate what we did against the Rangers."

Before this series is over, the names of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and Mike Green, and a half-dozen other stars, will probably be worn out with praise. That's why it was so important, from the Caps' perspective, to salvage a game, perhaps even steal one, because of names billed far below the top of the marquee.

"Big stars are important. But if you don't have 12 forwards and six defensemen, you're not going to win the big prize," Boudreau said. Then the coach with humble origins referred back, as he so often does, almost defiantly, to his vast experience of hockey's bush leagues as if insisting, one more time, that the lessons of Hershey, Pa., are every bit as valid as those learned in bigger burgs.

Like, for instance, his big dude Steckel, the 6-foot-5, 222-pounder who was helping him with the minor league Bears as recently as the '06 and '07 playoffs. "Steckel is a big-game guy," said Boudreau, recalling how the center scored 14 goals in 74 games at Hershey one season, then erupted for 10 in the playoffs. "He knows how to elevate his game."

So did Fleischmann in the split-second that ultimately decided this game. Just 1 minute 46 seconds into the final period, Semin on the left wing fed Nicklas Backstrom between the circles, who instantly spotted Fleischmann on the Penguins' doorstep for a quick flick of a short-side goal over Marc-André Fleury's left shoulder.

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