By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
PITTSBURGH, May 6 -- Nicklas Backstrom scored his first goal of the playoffs with 1 minute 50 seconds remaining in regulation Wednesday night at Mellon Arena. But, in the end, his clutch goal only delayed the inevitable for a Washington Capitals team that was outshot by 19, assessed seven penalties to the Pittsburgh Penguins' two and committed too many turnovers to count.
Kris Letang scored on a slap shot with 8:37 remaining in overtime to lift the Penguins to a 3-2 victory before a white-towel waving capacity crowd.
The Capitals' loss snapped their winning streak at five games, cut their series lead to 2-1 and represented a huge missed opportunity.
"They had the puck," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They were in our zone and we were backtracking. We were playing not to lose rather than to win."
Letang, who is playing with a suspected shoulder injury, scored the winning goal to spoil what had been another "outstanding" performance, Boudreau said, by rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov. Sidney Crosby beat David Steckel on the faceoff, winning the puck back to Mark Eaton. Eaton then got the puck to Letang, who rifled a shot that hit defenseman Shaone Morrisonn's stick before eluding Varlamov.
Varlamov faced 42 shots, while his Penguins counterpart, Marc-André Fleury, saw only 23.
"When you get a goaltending effort like that, you have to win because they don't come around every day," Boudreau said of Varlamov.
Yes, Varlamov was that good. The same could not be said for his 19 teammates.
The Capitals jumped out to an early lead and controlled the opening 10 minutes of the game. But they wilted in the second and third periods as a desperate Penguins team ratcheted up its intensity. The Penguins outshot the Capitals 15-4 in the second period and 11-6 in the third. Pittsburgh also enjoyed six consecutive power plays stretching from the middle of the first period through the late stages of the third.
"They played a perfect game against us in the second and third periods," defenseman Mike Green said. "They got in our faces and it was really tough to find room. We've been disciplined in the past, and that's why we were successful. It was unnecessary."
Alex Ovechkin, who scored the Capitals' other goal, was blunt when asked about the penalties during a testy session with reporters.
"They have only two penalties," he said. "It's kind of a joke, I think."
Penalties aside, Ovechkin also acknowledged that Wednesday's effort won't be good enough if the Capitals hope to win Game 4 here on Friday.
"They outplayed us in the second period," he said. "They controlled the puck in the offensive zone. It's good they only scored one goal. We can't play like this, especially when we are away. They deserved to win. They played better than us. Everybody see it."
Varlamov was the only reason the Capitals even had a chance to take what would have been a commanding 3-0 series edge. The 21-year-old rookie stopped 14 shots in the second period and the first nine he faced in the third period before Evgeni Malkin ended a five-game goal drought, scoring on the power play with 4:59 remaining in regulation to put the Penguins ahead 2-1 and ignite a celebration in the stands.
But not so fast. With Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis in the penalty box for interference, Ovechkin fired a shot on Penguins' goaltender Fleury, who steered a pad save to the side of the net. One problem: Backstrom was right there, and he put the puck off the back of Fleury's leg into the net to force overtime and give Varlamov and the Capitals a chance to steal a win on a night when they had no business earning one.
"They played great," Boudreau said. "They were going on all cylinders and we were watching them skate."
Suffering such a difficult defeat would have been hard to imagine after the start the Capitals had gotten off to. Ovechkin's fifth playoff goal came before the game was even five minutes old, and at one point Washington was outshooting the Penguins, 5-1.
Ovechkin opened the scoring only 1:23 in, capitalizing on a miscue by Fleury. Green had dumped the puck from the blueline off the glass, and the puck ricocheted awkwardly off a stanchion. Fleury attempted to play the puck but inexplicably lost his stick in the process.
Without a stick, Fleury was helpless to prevent the puck from coming right through the slot to Ovechkin, who fired it into a vacated net to put the Capitals ahead 1-0.
Fleury's error was magnified by the magnificent play of Varlamov at the other end. Once again, the 21-year-old formed a virtually impenetrable wall in front of the Capitals' net, turning away eight shots in the first period. Varlamov's best save came on Malkin, who snagged a deflected pass in the Washington end, raced through center ice and attempted to deke the rookie. But Varlamov denied the NHL's regular season scoring champ with a brilliant pad save.
Varlamov, however, was the victim of a bad bounce on the Penguins' first goal, which was scored by Ruslan Fedotenko. The Penguins winger carried the puck into the Washington zone with speed and purpose and whipped a shot toward the net. But the puck hit defenseman Milan Jurcina and came right back to Fedotenko.
The really bad bounce came in overtime, when Varlamov was virtually helpless to stop a shot by Letang that changed direction at the last second.
"We didn't capitalize on our breaks and they did," Morrisonn said. "It's a tough one for us to lose. But we showed character coming back to tie it and force overtime. Hopefully we can build off that for Game 4."