By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009
PITTSBURGH, May 8 -- The Washington Capitals came here brimming with confidence, a hot goalie in net and a two-games-to-none lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals against their biggest postseason rival.
That's all gone now.
Simeon Varlamov had his first bad game of the playoffs, Alex Ovechkin mustered only two shots on goal and was involved in a controversial knee-on-knee hit, and the power play was anything but powerful in a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday that sent the series back to Washington tied, 2-2.
"Alex is only human," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He can't be unbelievable every night. If you take the analogy of a baseball player, they don't hit home runs all the time. Alex is a great player; he just had one of those nights where he's not going to get three goals."
Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal after a first period in which he was involved in a controversial collision that knocked Penguins star defenseman Sergei Gonchar out of the game. The Penguins did not divulge the severity or nature of the injury, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to suit up for Game 5 on Saturday night at Verizon Center. It's also unclear if Ovechkin will face any disciplinary action from the NHL for the hit amid charges from at least one Penguins player that he's been trying to hurt opponents all series.
"I tried to hit him and he tried to move to his left, and I don't have time to realize what is going on and I hit [him with] my knee," Ovechkin said. "It was accident. I'm not the kind of guy who wants to injure a player like this, especially [because] I know Gonch. I tried to hit him with my shoulder and he moved left, but his legs were in the same spot."
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik told reporters: "That's three games in a row where he's out there trying to hurt guys. You just watch the way he hits. And he likes to target the Russian guys, for some reason."
Ovechkin and Varlamov weren't the only Capitals to struggle; they were just among the most noticeable ones.
Varlamov is perhaps the biggest reason the Capitals survived a seven-game first-round series with the New York Rangers and won the first two games against the Penguins. It could be argued that the 21-year-old was also the biggest reason the Capitals lost Game 4. One game after being his team's best player, the Russian rookie yielded five goals on 28 shots, including a soft goal on a shot by Ruslan Fedotenko from about 50 feet that went in and out of his glove and staked the Penguins to a 3-1 lead near the end of the first period.
"He struggled," Boudreau said. "He hasn't had a bad game. Arguably there were four soft goals out of the five. But he'll bounce back."
Despite his displeasure in Varlamov's performance, Boudreau indicated he plans to give Varlamov a chance to redeem himself, saying, "As far as I'm concerned, yes."
Washington's power play has also become a source of concern. The unit went 0 for 4 on Friday, managing one shot on goal, and is 3 for 13 in the series. One opportunity in particular haunted the Capitals afterward: With the man advantage at the start of the second period and a clean sheet of ice, they came up empty, hardly challenging Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who rebounded from a soft goal on the game's first shot to record 19 saves.
"We just have to play simple," Ovechkin said. "You could see at the beginning of the second period, we tried to be so cute. Everybody, me. We have skills, but if we play simple game, it's going to work."
The third period began with the Penguins clinging to a 3-2 lead. But Sidney Crosby's ninth goal of the playoffs restored Pittsburgh's two-goal edge and forced the Capitals to open things up and take more risks, permitting more odd-man rushes.
The play that led to the winning goal began with Bill Guerin chipping the puck off the glass in the Penguins' end. It was gloved down in the neutral zone by Miroslav Satan, who then initiated a two-on-one with Crosby. The Penguins' captain tapped in Satan's crossing pass.
The Capitals came right back on a short-handed goal by Milan Jurcina, his second of the playoffs. The defenseman blasted a slap shot from the point past Fleury after the Pittsburgh goaltender was knocked down by Orpik to make it 4-3.
But Washington couldn't get any closer. Maxime Talbot scored with an ordinary wrist shot on the rush with 5 minutes 14 seconds remaining to clinch the win. Mike Green, perhaps overly anxious to create offense, committed a turnover deep in the Penguins' end.
A two-goal loss would have been hard to predict after the way the night began. Only 36 seconds in, Alexander Semin picked off an errant Penguins pass and zipped the puck up to Nicklas Backstrom, who raced into the zone and blasted a fully wound slap shot past Fleury to make it 1-0.
It might have been the only thing that went right for the Capitals in the first period.
About three minutes later, captain Chris Clark was whistled for his fourth minor penalty in four games. The Capitals came within three seconds of killing off the penalty when Gonchar carried the puck into the Washington end and rifled a slap shot through Jurcina's skates and between Varlamov's pads.
Forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Green had a miscommunication on a breakout pass, resulting in a turnover that led to the Penguins' second goal. Varlamov made two sprawled stops on Crosby, but he wasn't able to stop Guerin's rebound shot at 10:47.
Then came Ovechkin's hit on Gonchar, which negated a Capitals' power play and sent the defenseman to the dressing room at 14:55 with the assistance of the Penguins' trainer.
On the ensuing four-on-four, The Penguins snagged a 3-1 edge when Fedotenko carried the puck in with speed, wound up and fired a shot that Varlamov got his glove on but failed to squeeze at 15:25.
In the second period, the Capitals limited the Penguins to four shots and none in the final 14:10. Clark's first goal of the playoffs, which came on a rebound, pulled them within 3-2.
But it was almost all Penguins in the third.