By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
PITTSBURGH, May 6 -- There is a cumulative effect of spending a night skating as part of a four-man unit trying to stop five skilled hockey players, some of them among the best in the world. That is, quite simply, exhaustion, a self-inflicted fatigue that comes from taking penalty after penalty, serving up scoring chances to the talented Pittsburgh Penguins and all but asking for an end-of-the-evening flogging.
That, then, is how Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals played out Wednesday night for the Washington Capitals. The Penguins, on paper, took a 3-2 victory at Mellon Arena because Kris Letang scorched a shot through a screen in overtime, keeping Pittsburgh in a series it was about to fritter away. But there remains the question of what might have happened differently had the Capitals not had seven different players take seven minor penalties, keeping them skating a man down for nearly 13 minutes.
"It was like, 'Here we go again,' " said forward David Steckel, a key part of the Capitals' first penalty-kill unit. "You just can't give a team like that that many power plays."
The Capitals did not, in any way, lose Wednesday night because of the way the penalty killers played. Rather, they were valiant. Five of them logged more than five minutes of ice time while a man down, led by defenseman Tom Poti (8:08) and Steckel (7:11). And the Penguins -- whose power play has toggled between dormant and impotent, with six goals in 42 tries coming into the night -- scored just once in their seven chances Wednesday, leaving them with just a 14.3 percent success rate in the playoffs.
That one, however, came after the Capitals' sixth and final penalty in regulation, a hooking call drawn by Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin, who had his best game of the series, on Alexander Semin. With Semin off the ice and the Capitals -- who were thoroughly outplayed, even at even strength -- all but gassed, Malkin slapped home a go-ahead goal with just less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
Thus, the stats don't look bad: six kills in seven tries. The reality, though, is quite different. Prior to the game, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau had outlined six "Keys to Victory" on a whiteboard in the Washington dressing room -- a fact that was caught on camera by the Versus network, which aired footage of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin preparing for a night's work. Among Boudreau's points of emphasis: "Initiate don't retaliate. Can't afford to give them 5 PPs every game."
"I think four, you can get away with," Boudreau said afterward. "And when we got the fifth one, I thought, 'Okay, we're playing with fire.' And when we got the sixth one, I said, 'Now we're in the danger zone.' And we were."
Conversely, the Capitals had just two power plays, and they came more than 48 minutes apart. Much of the pregame discussion Wednesday was spent analyzing chit-chat about penalties that have been called and those that haven't, with the Penguins accusing the Capitals of setting illegal picks for their players on faceoffs, and the Capitals disappointed that what they believed was a vicious cross-check against goaltender Simeon Varlamov by Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz in Game 2 didn't result in a suspension. With that back-and-forth in the immediate past, Boudreau took note that his team spent 2:38 on the power play, the Penguins 12:51.
"I hope I never hear them complain about penalties again -- picks and everything else," Boudreau said. "I think we might have deserved the penalties, but they sure as hell deserved a few more than they got."
Ovechkin, Boudreau's star, was asked about the officiating as well. Rarely does a man so sure of himself stammer so much.
"I don't want to talk about referee," he said. Pressed on whether his team needed more discipline -- Ovechkin himself was called for interfering with Sidney Crosby in the third period -- he stammered some more.
"The penalties was . . . I don't want to talk about it," he said. "They have only two penalties. It's kind of a joke, I think."
Even so, the Capitals scored on that second power play when Nicklas Backstrom squeezed one in with 1:50 left in regulation. But by the end of the night, when Letang was firing in his game-winner off the stick of Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, the Capitals' legs were dead. Too much time skating after the best skaters in the world. Too much time spent in the box.
"You're tired, but they had their power play guys out there a lot," Morrisonn said. "It's no excuse, being fatigued. We've got to stay disciplined."