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Correction to This Article
In some editions, the column incorrectly said that the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke scored the winning goal against the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the teams' NHL playoff series. Evgeni Malkin scored the goal.
A Bitter Night for Youngest Capitals

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, May 10, 2009

The same stunned, disbelieving expression washed across the face of each Cap who made his way into Washington's silent locker room. How could it happen again? Not once, but now twice, a game-losing overtime goal had deflected into their own net off one of their own sticks? And in the same series, to the Penguins, of all foes, the team that has sent them home in six of their seven previous bitter spring meetings over many years.

This time, Pittsburgh didn't even need to take a shot on goal to win. Instead, a pass by the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin deflected off the stick of diving defenseman Tom Poti and squeaked between the knees of Cap goalie Simeon Varlamov just 3 minutes 28 seconds into overtime.

"Just an unfortunate bounce," said a grim-jawed David Steckel, after the Caps' 4-3 defeat, their third straight loss to Pittsburgh, in Game 5 of this second-round playoff series. "Poti laid out for it just like he should. Tom's been our steadiest defenseman this year."

"Both of their overtime goals have been scored by our guys," said Coach Bruce Boudreau. "So it's an unlucky break."

To make the pain worse, in a way, the Caps finally played as they wanted to. "It was our best game of the series," said Boudreau. "They still had 42 shots. They are a very good team. They can skate. But we had the same energy and the same [scoring] chances that they did."

Then Boudreau paused, an image from overtime flashing into his mind -- the thought of Steckel, at point blank range, missing a half-open goal, wide to the right.

"If Steckel puts it in, in overtime, we're talking about all different things, all different questions," said Boudreau.

Then you're talking about when the Caps wrap this series up and how far they'll go toward a Stanley Cup. Instead, you're talking about whether there will be a Caps season after tomorrow night. The Pens controlled most of the two previous games in the Igloo. In a series that always figured to be close, can you lose twice in sudden death on shots you deflect into your own net? The Pens created those chances and, in that sense, earned their good fortune. But the self-inflicted method of torture haunts a team worse.

The most victimized of all the Caps, the 21-year-old Varlamov, played sensationally as the Caps took a 2-1 lead into the third period. "You could see that I did [play better]," said Varlamov through an interpreter. But he faded as he played back-to-back games for the first time in his NHL career.

Worse luck than that, however, Varlamov was blasted to the ice, holding his head, his mask knocked off, in a collision with Pens star Sidney Crosby just two minutes before the winning "goal" by Malkin.

"It is hard to lose a playoff game on a silly goal like this. The other overtime game was a deflection, too," Varlamov said. "I wasn't hurt [on the collision]. That's why I continued. It was a pass [by the Pens] to the far post. It changed directions. I didn't see it. It just went in.

"But, as they say, the winners make their own luck."

For the Caps, is there ever any? Sometimes, however, bad luck is the residue of poor design. "Hockey is a game of mistakes," said defenseman Brian Pothier. "When we made them, they scored. We had a lot of breakdowns that led to odd-man rushes."

Though Boudreau said that the game was reasonably well officiated, adding "what am I going to say," the coach certainly knew that the Pens had scored on a power play.

"It's very frustrating. To watch Alex Semin get tripped, to watch Boyd Gordon get it in the head and see Steckel get interfered with," said owner Ted Leonsis, shaking his head as he left Verizon Center. "In 10 years as an owner in this league, I've never once been on the power play in overtime."

This was a brutal ending to what was almost an inspired comeback by the Caps. With only 5:18 left in the third period, they trailed 3-2 and looked beaten -- and on the merits, as the Pens scored twice in the last period, despite being on the road. The packed Red crowd seemed more anxious than inspired. Oh, little faith. How easy it is to forget how good the young Caps can be -- when they aren't deflecting pucks into their own net.

Defenseman Mike Green, 23, flew up on the wing, flicked the puck onto the tape of center Nicklas Backstrom, 21, so that he could make the perfect pass to that swift warrior, Alex Ovechkin, 23, on the right wing -- the Great Eight already coiled. What happened next was not actually visible to the naked eye, the camera eye or, most pertinent, the goalie eye, either. Ovechkin blistered the puck past net-minder Marc-André Fleury.

That seemed like a turning point, an inspiration. But, in this process of building a new Caps tradition, there must be a fresh link made between such moment of poise under pressure and the final winning denouement.

Now, the Caps are left with brave words, as they return to Pittsburgh for Game 6, and memories of their series against the New York Rangers when they came back from two-game deficits twice.

"If we don't win it, we go home. We have to win it," said Varlamov.

This was an especially bitter night for the youngest and best of the Caps. As quick as you could say, "Pens win two in Pittsburgh to tie series," all the Caps kid stars found their ability, their playoff readiness, their nerve and verve, even their honor, called into question.

Varlamov was suddenly suspected of cracking under pressure in Game 4, allowing five goals, perhaps four of them "soft" in the words of his own coach. Ovechkin, who was held scoreless for the last 118 minutes in Pittsburgh, was accused of dirty play by the Pens' Brooks Orpik, a clear case of the pot calling the Waterford crystal black. As for high-scoring Semin and Norris Trophy candidate Green, they were critiqued as hors de combat for their entire tour of duty in Pennsylvania.

So, this Game 5 became a referendum on the four most conspicuous young Caps, the core of a championship future, if they have one. To call this rush to judge ironic would be understatement.

All season the Caps and their fans talked about how excited they were at the prospect of savoring the long process by which the team would make progress, with expected backsliding, toward its ultimate Stanley Cup goal. Patience, essential. This maturing process was supposed to take another year or two, during which these key young stars would endure all the metamorphoses of playoff hockey. They'd have to adapt to the faster, more desperate pace of postseason. They'd encounter cheap shots, gamesmanship and media criticism. All in good time, we said. So much for good sense and soberness.

Now, after this black-cloud ending, we are back to familiar spring talk of the Caps' misfortune. Luckily, if that is not an improper word, the Caps' best players are too young to know what is supposed to happen to them next in Pittsburgh.

So, maybe, without knowledge of their fate, they will avoid it. And return.

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