By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Before the start of this second-round series, it didn't seem possible that the matchup could possibly live up to the hype that had been heaped upon it, despite its considerable star power and the postseason history between two bitter rivals.
But after the Washington Capitals' 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last night before a manic crowd at Verizon Center, a tense, thriller of a game punctuated by hat tricks for both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, that's exactly what's happening.
In what will likely go down as one of the best playoff games in Capitals franchise history, Ovechkin did what MVPs do: He scored his final two goals in the final 7 minutes 7 seconds to help the Capitals win a franchise-record fifth straight game and take a two-games-to-none lead to Pittsburgh for tomorrow's Game 3.
"It's good for the fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other," said Ovechkin, whose hat trick was the first of his career in the playoffs. "It's unbelievable when we play against great players and you win the game like this. If I was a Capitals fan, I'd be really happy right now."
Ovechkin broke a tied game at 12:53 of the third period on the power play. Nicklas Backstrom won the faceoff deep in the Penguins' zone, kicked the puck back to defenseman Mike Green, who slipped a crossing pass to Ovechkin.
Ovechkin then fired a one-timer over Marc-André Fleury's blocker to put the Capitals ahead 3-2.
He provided what proved to be the winning margin a few minutes later. With 4:38 remaining, he gathered Victor Kozlov's pass near the redline, blasted into the Pittsburgh zone, then rifled a shot past defenseman Sergei Gonchar and eventually Fleury's glove, sending the crowd into a frenzy and eliciting ear-splitting chants of "MVP, MVP" as hats rained down on the ice.
"The best thing about Alex is that he takes the level so high, and then there's another night that he takes it higher," said teammate Brooks Laich. "I was on the bench for all of his goals and I just look up and it's unbelievable. He's our leader and he's the difference in the game."
Ovechkin's third goal put the Capitals ahead 4-2. But it almost wasn't enough. Because Crosby managed to keep everyone on the edge of their seats with one more goal, this one batted out of midair past Simeon Varlamov with 30.4 seconds remaining.
But the Penguins never mustered another shot.
"That's why Crosby and Ovechkin are who they are," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Not too many people can do what they did tonight."
Crosby added: "It was nice to score but it's better to win. Obviously disappointed we lost."
The dueling hat tricks marked only the second time in franchise playoff history that two players scored three goals in the same game. The other time was April 26, 1993, when Al Iafrate and the New York Islanders' Ray Ferraro -- who scored four -- accomplished the feat. Iafrate's performance was also the Capitals' last postseason hat trick.
Ovechkin, however, might not have been in position to supply the late heroics if not for the standout performance of another Russian: Varlamov, who once again was outstanding for the Capitals, making 33 saves.
As if the Capitals didn't have enough to worry about, they also were short a forward for most of the game. Winger Eric Fehr left the game with an undisclosed injury after getting upended by a crushing check along the boards by Ruslan Fedotenko midway through the first period. He did not return, forcing the Capitals to play down a man for most of the game.
The Penguins controlled the opening 20 minutes, taking 13 shots, many of which were prime scoring opportunities. But Varlamov made sure the visitors only scored once.
Crosby opened the scoring for the second straight game, firing a rebound past Varlamov at 6:38 on the power play. Varlamov had stopped Gonchar's blast from the point, but lost track of the puck as it lay inches from him. Crosby saw it first and jammed it beneath Varlamov's pads.
Crosby's goal was the only puck Varlamov didn't get to in the penalty-filled first period (Washington was whistled for five minors). Varlamov stopped the next seven shots, including two brilliant saves on a two-man advantage late in the period.
With defenseman Tom Poti and Green -- two of the Caps' top penalty killers -- in the box, Varlamov made a post-to-post save on Crosby with his skate, then turned back Gonchar's one-timer from the high slot with his glove.
Varlamov's workload increased in the second period, but this time his teammates chipped in at the other end.
Ovechkin tied things up 2:18 into the second period when he fired a one-timer from Kozlov past Fleury. Sergei Fedorov started the play with a crafty curl and dish to Kozlov from the wall.
Fleury made a magnificent stop on Ovechkin a few minutes later, then Crosby restored the Penguins' lead, 2-1, at 10:57 after a fluky bounce off Green's skate in the crease. The puck ricocheted off of Varlamov and back out to Crosby, who scored his seventh goal in eight games.
The Penguins, however, were the victims of their own bad bounce. Defenseman Tyler Sloan wound up and fired a shot from the point, but the puck hit Jordan Staal in front of the net and wound up on the stick of David Steckel, the Caps' grinder-turned-goal scorer.
Steckel fired the puck between Fleury's legs as he moved across the crease.
The goal was Steckel's second in two games and the third of his career in the playoffs.
"Sick game," Ovechkin said. "Three goals by me and him. We get the lead [2-0]. But again, it's a seven-game series."
Capitals fans know this all too well. In the long postseason history between these rivals, the Penguins have twice rallied from a 3-1 series hole and once from a 2-0 deficit.
"The one thing we've learned from experience is that you can't take for granted that you're going to be successful," Boudreau said. "All we really accomplished was, if this was a game of tennis, we've held serve."