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A Series With a Bright Future

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.

As pretty and Caps-typical as that swift tick-tack-toe goal may have been, it was not the split second from this game that every Capital wanted to revisit and relish. Instead, it was Varlamov's save late in the second period against Crosby that had them grinning.

"That was the turnaround save for us," Fleischmann said of Varlamov, who dove back to his right to prevent what seemed like a certain point-blank, open-net goal by Crosby. "I was stunned. Amazed. Taken aback. The whole bench was like, 'Wow. That's the break.' "

If the Caps control this series, that save -- with the puck an inch, at most, from crossing the goal line -- will loom over this series more and more. Even Crosby acknowledges it, even as he repeatedly avoided saying Varlamov's name.

"Obviously, the goalie made some big stops. I didn't get a whole lot on that shot. I just tried to direct it toward the goal. The goalie made a stick save, reached back, kind of a desperation save," said Crosby, apparently unable to recall the rookie's moniker. Sid the Kid had even begun his goal celebration, though he denied it.

Had Crosby ever been the victim of a better save? "Yeah, but I try to forget them, though," he said. "You don't want to waste those opportunities. You want to take advantage of it. You end up losing the game, 3-2, and you don't want to look back and say, 'What if?' "

Just as the Pens can't remember Varlamov's name, Ovechkin can't remember theirs, instead referring to them several times as "that pretty good team." Ovechkin the Gamesman also had a sharp needle in evaluating the play of the respective goalies, since Fleury was saved twice by Capitals shots, by Ovechkin and Fleischmann, that hit the post. "Varly played well," said the Great Eight. "And the post played well."

Oh, they'll read that in Pittsburgh. As for Varly's save, which atoned for an earlier soft goal on a 60-foot Pens floater, Ovechkin ranked it somewhat higher than Crosby did. "Pretty cool, top 10," said Ovechkin, who paused, then revised his estimate. "Number one."

We must wait to see if this series, the most star-studded and nationally watched that the NHL could possibly muster, lives up to its league-boosting potential. So far, so good.

"This is the script," Leonsis said afterward. "You have a major market. You have transcendent players on both teams. I don't know if there has ever been a team with three centers as good as Crosby, Malkin and Staal. And this is the most evenly matched series I've ever seen in the playoffs. You compare the stars, the lines, the goalies. This will go seven games. I don't know how. But it will."

The sky's the limit.

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