By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Three times since 1992, the Washington Capitals have been eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins after taking a two-game lead in a playoff series.
After a bad-break goal in overtime in Game 5 last night, they're on the verge of suffering another heartbreaking collapse.
Washington was seconds away from killing off a penalty when defenseman Tom Poti stretched out in a desperate attempt to break up a crossing pass by Evgeni Malkin. But instead of steering the puck out of trouble, he inadvertently poked it into his own net to send the Capitals to a 4-3 loss at Verizon Center, their third straight defeat in these Eastern Conference semifinals.
Less than a week ago, Alex Ovechkin and his teammates owned a 2-0 lead in the series. Now they're headed back to Pittsburgh down 3-2 and facing elimination. Game 6 is tomorrow night at Mellon Arena.
"You just have to think of it as one game," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Both of their overtime goals have been scored by our guys."
Ovechkin scored two goals, including one in the final minutes of regulation, and added an assist in the Capitals' best team performance of the postseason. But the reigning MVP never had much of a chance to supply any heroics in overtime, taking only one shift before Malkin's power-play goal.
The Capitals have lost their past seven playoff games that have gone to overtime; the Penguins have won eight of their past nine playoff games that were decided in extra time.
Milan Jurcina was whistled for tripping at 1 minute 29 seconds of the extra session, and with one second remaining on the penalty, Poti made the split-second decision to go down in an attempt to break up a two-on-one. Malkin was looking to dish the puck to Sidney Crosby when Poti stretched out prone, sliding back toward the Washington net. The puck hit his stick and slipped past Simeon Varlamov at 3:28. Poti lay face-first on the ice as the Penguins celebrated behind the goal.
"I tried to go down to take away the pass and his angle coming to the net," Poti said. "He tried to make the pass, and I think it hit my glove or my stick. It was just a lucky bounce, an unfortunate bounce."
Malkin's goal gave the Penguins their second win in overtime in this series and probably has longtime fans of the Capitals wondering if their team is in fact cursed when it comes to Pittsburgh and the playoffs. In Game 3, a shot by Penguins defenseman Kris Letang deflected off of Shaone Morrisonn before eluding Varlamov.
As deflating as the defeat was, several Capitals said they're confident they can extend the series to a seventh game, pointing to their first-round victory over the New York Rangers, a series in which they rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 holes.
"We certainly have experience in this situation," David Steckel said. "All hope is not lost. Nobody on this team wants it to end."
Said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored a goal for the second straight game: "It's not over yet. We know we can do it and we believe it, so we're just going to go back there and try to play for 60 minutes."
The Capitals brought a 2-1 lead into the third period, but they managed to hang onto it for less than a minute. Ruslan Fedotenko rifled a drop pass from Malkin past Varlamov only 51 seconds in, tying the score at 2.
Less than five minutes later, the Penguins had the lead. Varlamov stopped the first two shots, but wasn't able to turn back Matt Cooke's rebound goal at 6:27, setting the stage for another dramatic goal from a player who has been carrying the Capitals for four seasons.
On the rush, Mike Green slipped a pass to Backstrom, who flicked the puck to Ovechkin, who snapped the puck past Marc-André Fleury to tie the score 3-3.
In overtime, Steckel missed an open net seconds in. Because of a sloppy line change and Jurcina's penalty, they never got a second chance.
One of the concerns coming into the game was the effect of playing on back-to-back nights would have on the teams. This is the only conference semifinal series that featured contests on consecutive days, the result of a scheduling conflict at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena.
Fatigue, however, was never an issue in what might have been the Capitals' most inspired performance of the postseason.
With each team sensing its season could be on the line, the first period was a thriller, despite ending scoreless. Featuring few stoppages, the teams combined for 23 shots on goal and 26 hits.
The second period was even more intense.
Jordan Staal opened the scoring at 5:17 when he finished off a perfectly executed give-and-go with Miroslav Satan with a one-timer from the faceoff dot that beat Varlamov to the long side.
It didn't take long for the Capitals to answer.
Fifty-nine seconds after Staal's goal had silenced a boisterous capacity crowd, Ovechkin sent it into a frenzy with his ninth goal of the playoffs.
Ovechkin carried the puck into the Penguins' end with speed, slammed on the brakes between the circle and boards, then whipped a wrist shot around Brooks Orpik and over Fleury's glove to even the game, 1-1. As Ovechkin raised his stick to celebrate the goal, he kissed his glove, then looked directly into Orpik's eyes and said something to the defenseman.
The goal lifted the Capitals, who responded with their most energetic stretch of these playoffs, a span punctuated by defenseman John Erskine's crushing check of Chris Kunitz along the boards.
The Capitals continued to control the game when the Penguins were whistled for too many men. Sixteen seconds after Malkin took a seat in the penalty box, Backstrom had put his club ahead, 2-1.
But the Capitals had an inexplicable lull in the opening minutes of the third period, allowing the Penguins to rally.
"We played a good first two periods," Ovechkin said. "But in the first 10 minutes of the third, we stopped playing. They made great plays and scored two goals."
Ovechkin added: "Our team understands there's only one more chance for us to move forward. Our next game is going to be our biggest game for us. We want to come back here and hopefully advance."