By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
PITTSBURGH, May 11 -- The fact that the Washington Capitals extended their season Monday night will be chalked up to David Steckel's goal in overtime, and rightfully so, because it provided a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, pushing the Eastern Conference semifinals to a decisive Game 7 Wednesday night. But the extended season was exemplified by something much more mundane -- Viktor Kozlov, a 34-year-old Russian, sweating profusely as he pumped his legs on an exercise bike in a cramped corridor under the stands at Mellon Arena.
"I'm very happy," Kozlov said, legs still churning, "to say the least."
Entering this postseason, Kozlov had not scored a goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs despite the fact he had played in the National Hockey League for 14 seasons. He eliminated that problem in the first game of the opening round against the New York Rangers. Still, entering Monday night, Kozlov had not scored in the series against the Penguins. He eliminated that problem, too, helping keep the Capitals alive with two crucial goals, one that tied the game at 1 in the second period, the other that gave Washington a third-period lead.
In a series dominated -- in both the headlines and on the ice -- by Washington winger Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, Kozlov's Game 6 performance was as unexpected as it was essential. He last scored twice in a game on Dec. 18 against St. Louis. He had only two assists in the Penguins series, both in Game 2, and just four points in 12 playoff games.
"He's a veteran guy," defenseman Mike Green said, "and we needed a veteran to step up and score goals."
If not, they could easily have been eliminated. Kozlov's night, too, did not begin as the Capitals wanted. In a horrid first period in which the Penguins managed 18 shots to just five for the Capitals, Coach Bruce Boudreau watched from the bench, wondering if the third piece of his top line -- joining Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom -- would ever get going.
"I said, 'Jeez, I don't think he has it,' after the first period," Boudreau said. "He mishandled a couple pucks."
In a situation in which the Capitals faced the end of their season, that was unacceptable. Kozlov, a smooth skater who has the skill to be a worthy complement to Washington's top players, merely needed to sneak one in.
"We all wish he would shoot more, because he's got such a great shot," Boudreau said. And nearly six and a half minutes into the second period, Kozlov finally unleashed something worthwhile. With Crosby limping around the ice after having been hit by a shot, Ovechkin found Kozlov just on the edge of the right circle.
"It was just a very good pass, and I just had no other option," Kozlov said, "just to shoot."
The wrister beat Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury and slipped under the crossbar. Tie game, and a goal by someone other than Ovechkin. That gave the Capitals new reason to hope. And it also may have changed Kozlov.
"Once he scored the [first] one," Boudreau said, "you knew he had a little bit of confidence."
There was, after all these years, something to the fact that Kozlov had never scored in the playoffs. Playing 21 games in the postseason -- and never once beating a goalie and celebrating can wear on a guy.
"Of course it bothered me," Kozlov said. "I played here 14 years, and nothing."
The second goal came in the third, just as the loudspeakers were blaring the announcement of Alexander Semin's game-tying goal. Kozlov came down the right wing and fired a shot. It bounced off the boards behind the net. But Kozlov swooped in, controlling the puck again. As he circled the net, now on the left side, he again felt he had one option.
"Just shoot," he said, so he did. From an impossible angle, he beat Fleury again. Ovechkin had three assists on the night, including on both of Kozlov's goals. But someone had to be there to bury them.
"They obviously take away Ovechkin and Semin and those guys," Green said, "and Kozzy's one of those guys that when he gets around the net, he can score. Tonight was his game."
Yet afterward, the man Boudreau referred to as a "quiet gentleman" did what he would do on any other night when there are more games to be played. He rode the stationary bike, trying to strengthen his muscles, even this late in the season. He smiled broadly, all but relishing the pain.
"It's another guy you're just really happy for," Boudreau said. "All the talk before the series was he had never scored a playoff goal, so it was his due time."