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The Save Came Early

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH

Before David Steckel deflected the puck that pierced the Penguins, before he pushed this irresistibly insane series to the limit, he thought back to a moment in the middle of the first period -- a moment that saved the Washington Capitals' season long before that goal in overtime.

"That's got to be the most satisfying [penalty kill] I've ever been a part of," Game 6's unlikely hero said in a dead-quiet corridor of the Mellon Arena on Monday night. "Big stage. Big moment. We need it to stay alive and give ourselves a chance later. Yeah, that's got to be it."

Five players on the ice against three -- a virtual death knell for a goalie when a team as potent as Pittsburgh is recoiling its sticks and already leading 1-0. But there was Steckel, the same 6-foot-5, elongated frame that poked that puck home two hours later, reaching his limbs out as far as they would go. Boyd Gordon, bumping and bothering. And Tom Poti, dropping to all fours -- not once, but twice -- as if he were a man terrified he had lost his contact lenses on the ice.

"I was like a frog, kicking my legs out left and right, trying to discard anything," Poti said. "I can't let that puck go through, because if I do there's two guys whacking away. It was a key, key moment."

It was the defining moment in Game 6, 56 seconds worth of desperation and effort and trust and all the things the Washington Capitals were going to need besides Alex Ovechkin, Viktor Kozlov and Brooks Laich to stave off defeat in an elimination game for the fourth time this season and sixth time in two seasons of resilient, back-to-the-wall playoff hockey that has the District abuzz for Wednesday night at Verizon Center.

They rolled another seven? They rolled another seven.

Because Steckel, Poti and Gordon refused to give in on a five-on-three advantage, Pittsburgh's chance to widen its 1-0 lead and waltz to a series-clinching victory drifted away, down ice.

Sure, Steckel's winning score that pushed this heirloom to Game 7 is worth another look, maybe 10 if you remember Dale Hunter and Peter Bondra and all the years of hardship and heartbreak felt keenly by the Capitals' longtime legions. But if I'm Bruce Boudreau, the only mandatory viewing my team sees from last night at the Igloo is Steckel poking the puck away and Poti, his body in a prone position, sprawling, protecting the territory between him and Simeon Varlamov, standing sentry over a season.

Before Poti would have allowed a second goal to the Penguins at that moment, the defenseman would have sooner given up his home or his dog.

"Huge," said Mike Green, the last player to leave the victorious visiting locker room as he dressed and toweled off his Mohawk. "It's the little things like that -- really, the big things like that -- that wins these kind of games. Those guys that were out there were so important for us at that juncture. They gave us the opportunity to come back and win."

You know how many of the Penguins' 42 shots were taken during those seminal 56 seconds? Four.

The Caps have played catch-up all series, trying to adjust to a team that could actually skate rather than muck up the middle like the Rangers. They have been beaten to the punch repeatedly, often appearing as if they were playing four-on-five against the Penguins even when it was even. Even last night, the shot differential was 42-24.

But when it mattered most, when their season was on the line, they incredibly rolled another seven, going the distance in the three postseason series they have played since last April.

The Flyers a year ago brought drama and, in the end, wrenching defeat, and the Rangers were good for pulsating theater. But there is nothing quite like Caps-Penguins now that's it here, the maiden playoff series pitting Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. After combining for five more points in Game 6, the Great 8 and Sid the Kid have totaled 13 goals and 10 assists in some of the most riveting hockey since some guy in Edmonton twirled the NHL on his stick.

When the last player had left the ice, when the delirium of another overtime had taken hold of this surreal Stanley Cup playoff series and Steckel was mobbed by teammates, the only feeling among anyone not an extremist or employee of either organization was unanimous:

Why wouldn't they just play another? Why can't they go one more for the NHL's sake, for Commissioner Gary Bettman's sake, heck, for humanity's sake? Or -- I can't believe I'm typing this -- Don Cherry's sake?

Why couldn't the Capitals and Penguins go the distance, to a final act in Washington on Wednesday, to one more night of Ovechkin vs. Crosby, to Evgeni Malkin vs. Nicklas Backstrom, to unsung Russian heroes like Viktor Kozlov and Ruslan Fedotenko, to a wunderkind goalie and especially a dig-the-puck out defenseman like Poti.

"This is so good for our game, that the best players can shine on a great stage," Boudreau said, more like a fan than a coach. "I just wish it was for the Stanley Cup."

We're basically seeing Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins duel in the Eastern Conference semifinals 21 years ago.

As far as the Ovechkin-Crosby debate goes, to the victor on Wednesday goes perception as much as the spoils.

Their games are so utterly different. Crosby camps out in front of the crease -- what a beautiful, workmanlike effort to tie Game 6 in regulation -- and digs pucks out. He is easily the sport's most accomplished passer. The other guy is essentially Sputnik on Ice, just a bedazzling mix of strength and speed.

For all of Ovie's showmanship and surreal streaming video, Crosby has been a part of a team that has won five playoff series and been to one Stanley Cup final. Teams led by Ovechkin are still 1-1 in the postseason and have yet to advance past the second round.

It all hangs in the balance Wednesday night. Washington-Pittsburgh. Ovie and Sid the Kid, for everything in the best-player-in-the-game kitty. Brought to you by another deflected goal, by an unheralded stick figure who keeps winning faceoffs, and a determined defenseman who went to his hands and knees, like a frog, to ensure the Penguins did not run away with Game 6 on their home ice.

"Is this an awesome series?" George McPhee, the Caps' general manager, said, wheeling his travel bag to the team bus, back to Washington for Game 7.

You might say that, yes.

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