By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
PITTSBURGH, May 11 -- Twice in the span of 48 hours, Washington Capitals checking line center David Steckel put himself in position to score in overtime.
The second time, however, went much better than the first.
One game after misfiring on an open net, Steckel scored what he called the biggest goal of his career, redirecting a shot 6 minutes 22 seconds into extra time to lift the Capitals to a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, force a Game 7 and add another chapter to one of the most memorable playoff series in recent memory.
"I was really down" after missing the net in Game 5, said Steckel, who has three goals in the playoffs after recording only eight in the regular season. "I was right there, and then to lose the game two minutes after that. I told myself if I had the chance to do it again, I wouldn't miss."
The winning play began with Steckel breaking Maxime Talbot's stick on a faceoff and then racing to the net, where he redirected a shot by Brooks Laich around Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury to stun the white towel-waving capacity crowd at Mellon Arena and improve the Capitals' record to 6-1 when facing elimination under Coach Bruce Boudreau.
"He's a big-game guy," Boudreau said of Steckel.
The Capitals now have the chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a win on Wednesday at Verizon Center and, perhaps just as important, dispense with some demons that have haunted this franchise for nearly two decades. A win also would give Washington only its second series victory over Pittsburgh in eight all-time meetings.
Steckel scored the winner, but several Capitals deserved credit for their contributions. Viktor Kozlov picked up his first two goals of the series, Alexander Semin had two assists and rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov made 38 saves, including 17 in a first period in which the Penguins might have buried Washington without him.
"Like I said before the game, it's time for everyone to play their hardest," said Alex Ovechkin, who had three assists. "This is the best group of guys, they never give up. It doesn't matter who scores, me, Kozzie, Stecks in overtime, what matters is we win the game and we go back to our building and our fans."
Victory, though, was never a sure thing for either team in a game that featured two lead changes in the third period.
After getting goals from Kozlov and Laich 29 seconds apart early in the third period, the Capitals found themselves clinging to a 4-3 lead late in regulation.
But Varlamov and the Capitals' defense couldn't prevent Sidney Crosby from doing what he does best: scoring inches from the goal mouth. Crosby knocked down Brooks Orpik's point shot in front of Varlamov, then took two hacks at the puck before whacking it out of mid-air past the sprawled goaltender with 4:18 remaining.
Pittsburgh then was the recipient of a power play when Laich was whistled for slashing the stick out of Chris Kunitz's hands.
"He's got one hand on the stick and he's reaching for the puck with two minutes to go in an elimination game," Boudreau said of Kunitz. "I wasn't happy at all."
Varlamov, though, stopped both shots he faced in the final minutes to send a game to overtime for a third time in the series.
"He played great," Boudreau said of his 21-year-old goalie. "He plays with the composure of a 10-year veteran."
Varlamov made three stops in a frantic and furious overtime before Steckel struck.
Steckel's goal not only helped him erase the memories of his miss in overtime on Saturday, it vindicated him for a penalty he took early in the third period. He was in the box for slashing when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang snapped a shot from the middle of the circle past Varlamov's glove.
"When he took the penalty and they scored, he kept saying on the bench, 'Just get one back for me' " Boudreau said of Steckel. " 'Get one back for me.' He's so into the team and he thought he had let them down. He ended up getting the winning goal so it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."
Late in the second period, Steckel was reunited with Laich and Matt Bradley on what had been one of the Capitals' best lines before Boudreau busted them up earlier in the series. On the winning goal, all three of them touched the puck.
"We're basically the same type player," Steckel said. "We keep things simple, get pucks deep and we have great chemistry together and we work hard."
After Letang's goal put the Penguins ahead 3-2 on the power play at 4:40 of the third period, Semin ripped a wrist shot from the bottom of the circle that hit Laich before squeezing past Fleury, who made 19 saves, at 5:38.
Less than a half-minute later, Kozlov's second goal of the game put Washington ahead 4-3. Ovechkin fired a shot that hit a Penguins player before crackling off the glass behind the goal and coming back out front. While that was happening, Penguins defenseman Hal Gill attempted to take a shortcut through the crease. But what he ended up doing was interfering with Fleury, preventing him from getting into position to stop Kozlov's short-angle shot from about the goal line.
The game stayed that way until Crosby did his thing in the final minutes of regulation in a game that had 17,132 on the edges of their seats for most of it.
Boudreau joked that he would be enjoying it a lot more if he weren't so stressed out.
"If I wasn't behind the bench, I would sure enjoy watching," he said. "It's fun now, it might not have been fun if they had scored. This is so good for our game. When our best players can shine on a bright stage like this. I just wish it was for the Cup."