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Troubling Questions and Hard Truths

By Mike Wise
Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH Scenes from a road trip gone terribly awry:

A lethargic Mike Green, giving away pucks that sometimes lead to goals.

Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom inexplicably playing catch on the power play, graciously doubling as penalty-killers for the Penguins.

Simeon Varlamov, finally mortal in goal, the kid unable to stop five shots -- including at least two he should have had.

And Alex the Horrible, sulking in the penalty box after a controversial hit that left Sergei Gonchar writhing in pain and holding his knee on the ice.

"That's three games in a row where he's out there trying to hurt guys," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik claimed. "You just watch the way he hits." Orpik went on to say Ovie "likes to target the Russian guys, for some reason."

Never mind Orpik is the same cheap-shot artist who speared Semin in the groin in Game 1. No.

All even, all contentious.

The Penguins didn't merely hold serve on home ice; they continued a deepening trend that began in Washington a week ago. Look, it's obvious to any observer not wearing an oversize Rock-the-Red T-shirt to bed or so stuck in denial about their team they can't cope with reality:

The Caps haven't been the better team in this series. That fact merely caught up to them in Pittsburgh. Now, with Game 5 on Saturday night at home, Coach Bruce Boudreau has some serious questions to ponder:

For starters, what's wrong with Green? If it's not an injury, something is amiss because the Capitals defenseman just looks trapped in thought, as if he's thinking the game rather than instinctively playing it. He's tentative when it comes to scoring chances, the hellion aggression missing on both ends. When he finally knocked a Penguin off the puck late in the game, it was almost a flashback.

Boudreau claims Ovechkin has no health problems, but except for a few rushes and some big hits he wasn't the same fierce presence at the Igloo that dominated the late stages of Games 1 and 2 in Washington. He didn't seem disinterested, but his chances seemed to decrease almost as his team's desire at the end, and that's a bad sign because this team goes as Ovie goes.

Yes, there was this little underage ingrate criminal, since arrested, who threatened his life on a Penguins message board. But worse for Ovechkin, he has had to deal with an entire team collapsing on him because the Penguins simply don't fear his linemates at the moment. Semin, especially, isn't making Marc-André Fleury worry much -- it was almost painful to watch him and Backstrom play footsie with the puck on a second-period power play.

Boudreau also has to ask himself if his goalie was shaken mentally in Game 4. Varlamov has been gold in the net for almost three weeks now, but he gave up as many goals in the first period (three) as he gave up over four straight games against the Rangers in the first round.

A couple of them were unavoidable and more the fault of his teammates than him. But at least one got past his glove. Two weeks ago in New York, Chris Drury put back a puck Varlamov couldn't hold onto. If he has a weakness at this early juncture in his 16-game NHL career, it may be glove side.

Was five goals an aberration or the beginning of a confidence meltdown for a 21-year-old who finally looked and acted his age in his maiden Stanley Cup playoffs?

Most of all for the Capitals, the hard truth about Game 4 was it kick-started a grueling stretch of three games in four nights. They went from being up 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals -- and maybe a fortunate overtime goal away from an insurmountable 3-0 lead on Wednesday -- to now having to play a Game 6 here on Monday night.

If they don't find a way on home ice Saturday, Ovie's army is down to an elimination game in the Igloo less than six days after they had commanding control of the series.

The speed in which the momentum appeared to turn is tremendously misleading. While much conversation will be made of the Penguins turning it around at home, the thinking here is since last Saturday the Caps have maybe had two superior periods in 13.

Ovechkin took over the third period in Game 2 in a way that masked all the odd-man rushes and furious energy that characterized the Penguins' effort in the first two games.

In Game 3, Washington decided to almost give in to the idea that Pittsburgh would respond at home, playing some of the most uninspiring hockey of its postseason, while still only managing to lose in overtime.

And after scoring first for the second straight game, Friday night became merely a frustrating exercise in playing catch-up from one or two goals down to a Penguins team looking more determined, deeper and much more experienced at wrestling a taut playoff series to the ground.

Remember, Pittsburgh went four rounds a year ago before bowing out to the Red Wings in six games. Washington went all of seven games in the first round.

Maybe the Caps were due for a letdown after a club-record five straight playoff wins. Maybe, when the NHL's last two MVPs and top three point scorers are involved, this is just the thrilling path a made-for-CBC series has taken.

When it came to these two incredibly talented and deep teams, after all, a memorable six- or seven-game scrap seemed right and good from the beginning.

But the confident club that left Washington feeling good about itself has morphed into a bunch of risk-taking players flailing wildly at the puck, who at this moment need Game 5 like nothing in the world.

The Caps unfortunately learned Friday night that Varlamov is not the Matrix; the impossibly talented Semin, Backstrom and Green can still look surprisingly green in May; and, finally, Ovie is a dirty player, according to a spearing troll from Pittsburgh.

Donald Brashear is available for Game 6, right?

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