Crushing Loss Shows Capitals' Class and Promise

By John Feinstein
Monday, May 11, 2009; 11:44 AM

One of the many things that makes hockey players different from most athletes is that they almost always tell the truth. There's no rationalizing, no excuse-making and only occasional whining.

Never was that more evident than Saturday night in the wake of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The game was stunning on a number of levels. It ended when Evgeni Malkin attempted to sweep a pass across the goal crease to a charging Sidney Crosby only to see the Capitals' Tom Poti -- doing everything a defenseman is supposed to do in that situation -- deflect the puck with his stick past goaltender Simeon Varlamov 3 minutes, 28 seconds into overtime.

That goal ended an entertaining game that started with the Capitals flying all over the ice, snapping off eight shots on goal before the six-minute mark of the first period while the Penguins tried to get their skates underneath them. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury withstood the onslaught, and by the end of a scoreless first period, the shots were 12-11 for Washington and everyone in Verizon Center was trying to catch their breath.

"If we could have buried one of those shots early," Poti said quietly, shaking his head, "maybe it's different. But we didn't."

The game went back and forth for 60 minutes of regulation: The Penguins scored first -- in the first four games of this series, the losing team had struck first -- then the Caps came back to lead 2-1 after two periods, aided by a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty against Pittsburgh. Then the Penguins went up 3-2 before Alex Ovechkin tied the score with 4:52 left in regulation, setting up the overtime.

That the game ended on a fluke play isn't in doubt.

"Anyone who has played in the National Hockey League has had that happen to them at some point," Caps defenseman Brian Pothier said. "Tom did what you're supposed to do and got unlucky."

And yet, Pothier wasn't about to say that made the loss excusable.

"We played our best game of the series," he said. "But it seemed as if they were able to take advantage of the mistakes we made. Hockey is about mistakes. Tonight they were able to take advantage of the ones we made."

But, it was pointed out to him, the game was lost on a fluke in overtime.

"The game was lost because we made mistakes in regulation that caused the overtime," Pothier said firmly.

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