Washington Capitals Face Elimination in Game 6 of Series With Pittsburgh Penguins

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

When the lights finally came on at Kettler Capitals Iceplex yesterday morning, it wasn't so the Washington Capitals could go through the kind of brisk, energetic workout that might precede a regular season game, or even the first game of a playoff series. It was so Donald Brashear, the forward who has been suspended for the past six games, could skate silently and slowly while listening to his iPod, tinkering with some pucks, and so forward Brooks Laich, with never-ending energy, could work out whatever is left of his frazzled nerves.

No coaches, no pads, no drills, no strategy. Just a team meeting, a bus ride to Dulles International Airport, a flight to Pittsburgh -- and one more chance to flirt with, but perhaps avoid, the end of their season.

Whether the lights at their Arlington training complex will be necessary for the Capitals again this season will be determined tonight at Mellon Arena, where Washington faces elimination at the hands of the Penguins. If they are to extend the season -- they trail Pittsburgh three games to two in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- they must overcome the angst brought on by Saturday night's 4-3, overtime loss in Game 5, a game Coach Bruce Boudreau assessed as their best of the series.

The Capitals must, too, draw on what they have learned in the past, because they have been in this position before -- and succeeded.

"We have to draw from it," Boudreau said yesterday in the darkness at the arena. "And we have to believe that it's capable of being done, and it is capable of being done."

The Capitals, even with the pain of the loss -- in which Evgeni Malkin's game-winning goal deflected off the stick of Washington defenseman Tom Poti -- know that better than almost any team in the NHL. To review: Washington has faced six elimination games over the past two playoffs, three each against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008 and the New York Rangers just last month. Their record in those contests is 5-1, with the only loss in overtime in the seventh game in last year's opening-round series against the Flyers.

"Desperation and urgency," defenseman Brian Pothier said Saturday night. "It's another elimination game for us. We're getting used to these."

Desperation and urgency were the buzzwords against the Flyers a year ago, and again against the Rangers. In each of those series, the Capitals felt as if they were playing well enough to win, to be ahead. They certainly feel that way this year, even as the Penguins have registered more shots in every game. Still, four of the five games have been decided by one goal, two of them in overtime -- and those on the deflections off the sticks of Poti and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, in Game 3. By the standards of this series, the "blowout" loss came in Game 4, a 5-3 decision in which rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov was decidedly shaky.

"There's five games, and if this is the regular season, you're 2-1-2," Boudreau said. "And the two overtime losses we've put the puck in our own net. And even the one regular loss, I mean, it'd be easy to say that was Varly's only bad game of the playoffs. So we're right there."

Indeed, these are rationalizations, and they are much the same as the Penguins put forth when they trailed this series two games to none. Yet to force a deciding Game 7, which would be held Wednesday night at Verizon Center, the Capitals will not only have to perform, but win, just as they did in the sixth game of each of their previous two playoff series.

Last year, the Capitals squeaked out a one-goal win in the fifth game against the Flyers to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia. There, they fell behind, 2-0, tied it up after two and got a pair of third-period goals from Alex Ovechkin to take a 4-2 victory and force a seventh game. Against the Rangers in the first round this year, the Capitals were coming off a dominant Game 5 win at home, then jumped out to a four-goal lead after two periods at Madison Square Garden. They hung on to beat New York, 5-3, extending their season again.

"It's the same situation as last series," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We know we can do it, and we believe it, so we're just going to go back there and try to play the same way [for] 60 minutes."

Playing the same way likely involves major contributions from Ovechkin, the reigning league most valuable player who scored twice Saturday and has seven of the Capitals' 15 goals in the series. His counterpart as a leading man, Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, has scored five times. But only one of Crosby's goals has come in the Penguins' three wins. The difference for Pittsburgh is that they have drawn production from unlikely sources such as checking forward Matt Cooke, who put the Penguins ahead in the third period Saturday, and veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who has scored in each of the last three games.

"We got [secondary scoring] in the first couple games, and we won," Boudreau said. "They've gotten it in the last couple games, and they've won. Hopefully, it's our turn."

The Capitals had one glaring, enticing chance at a goal from an unlikely source Saturday night, when forward David Steckel tried to corral a bouncing puck in front of the Pittsburgh goal early in overtime. "It just went off the top of my stick," Steckel said, "and went wide."

Because of that, the Capitals face this situation tonight, one that is unsettlingly familiar. Win, and play Wednesday. Lose, and play golf.

"It's one game," Steckel said. "If we want our season to be done, then there it is. Nobody on this team wants it to end. We all want to stay here and keep playing hockey, so that's what we have to do, and that's the mentality that we're going to take when we go in."

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