By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009
One of the cruel realities of hockey rests with Tom Poti today and tomorrow and -- depending on what happens in the remainder of the series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins -- perhaps for the rest of his career. That is the following: On a particular play, you can do everything you're taught to do, and you still might be remembered as the key man on the play that lost the game.
So when the replay of Evgeni Malkin's goal comes on television today -- and it will, because it came in overtime, and it gave the Penguins a 4-3 victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- know that Poti has already seen it, time and again, in his own mind. Malkin was credited with putting the game-winner past Washington goaltender Simeon Varlamov, but only because he was the last Pittsburgh player to touch the puck. Poti, though, got to it as well -- and it bounced off his stick, past Varlamov. By that measure, and only that measure, Pittsburgh took a 3-2 lead in the series.
"It happens," veteran defenseman Brian Pothier said. "It happens to everybody in the National Hockey League. Anybody who's played any length of time, you get fluky bounces."
In the most microscopic way, that's what this was, an admirable defensive effort gone awry. But there are other parts to the play, and because the Capitals are now facing elimination Monday night in Pittsburgh, Poti had considered them all less than 30 minutes after the game ended. His take -- fully formed, unable to be rinsed away by a shower and some time in the training room -- went something like this:
"Their guy's coming in down the wall," Poti said. "I think he beat our guy wide."
Start there. With the Capitals down a man because of a penalty on defenseman Milan Jurcina, Washington forward David Steckel shot the puck wide in the Pittsburgh end, trying to kill the clock. But it bounced off the boards and directly to Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz, who immediately tapped it to Malkin on the right side.
Malkin, one of the NHL's most skilled players, carried the puck along the right boards, into the Washington zone. There, he was met by Washington center Sergei Fedorov, a 39-year-old playing his second playoff game in 24 hours. Malkin is 22. On the ensuing play, the two looked their ages. Malkin stepped on the gas.
"You have to have that second gear, and there are times when Geno's done it, time and time again, where he's even with a guy or he's leaning on a guy," said Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, referring to Malkin by his nickname. "You have to find a way to get that extra gear, and he has it."
So with Fedorov unable to disrupt Malkin's charge, Poti watched the play unfold as he skated toward the crease. Crosby was charging down center-ice. Poti had a difficult choice: play the puck, or play the pass.
"It's Malkin, so you can't give him too much time and space," Poti said. "It became a 2-on-1. I tried to go down and take the pass away, and tried to take away his angle coming to the net."
Forget the result for a moment; it was the right choice. Malkin tried to slide a pass through Poti. Over and over in the playoffs, teams talk about "paying the price" for wins. Implied in that is a willingness -- almost masochistic -- to place your body in front of the puck, no matter how fast it is traveling. Poti, with the game in the balance, did just that.
"His stick was probably in a great position, and nine times out of 10, he stops the puck," Pothier said. "And the one fluky time goes in the net."
From there, it gets to be a blur. "He tried to make the pass," Poti said, "and it went off my glove or my stick or something."
It was the stick, to be specific. Not that it matters. The pertinent part: the puck changed direction, beat Varlamov, and in the most heart-wrenching manner, crushed the Capitals.
"Of course you'll replay it," Poti said. It is human nature. The Penguins' other overtime game-winner, from Kris Letang, deflected off the stick of Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn. Now, this -- another deflection, another night of mulling it over and over and over again.
"The timing's unfortunate," Pothier said. "But Tom's probably our steadiest and our best defenseman all year. It's not going to faze him. He's going to show up on Monday ready to perform."