By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The night began with Verizon Center pulsating to "Let's Go Caps," chanted by a capacity crowd at an eardrum-splitting decibel level.
But by the time the game had reached the halfway mark, the audience was mostly motionless and silent, filled with stunned fans who couldn't believe what was unfolding before them. Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals were behind by five goals against their most reviled rival en route to a humbling 6-2 defeat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"The reason they won the game is because they outworked us," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "It's not easy to stand here and say that we've been outworked in our building in a Game 7. That's not something that's easy to say, but I'm sure we're going to have to think about that for a long time."
Led by 21-year-old Sidney Crosby (two goals, one assist), the Pittsburgh Penguins outshot the Capitals 16-5 in the first period, struck twice in an eight-second span early and cruised to a second straight conference final appearance. They'll face either Carolina or Boston.
The Capitals, meantime, went down quietly, falling to 1-2 under Coach Bruce Boudreau in playoff series, all three decided in seven games.
Last night's lopsided loss was a stunner -- except maybe to longtime Capitals fans who've watched the Penguins toast a playoff victory at their expense more times than they care to remember. To be exact: Pittsburgh has eliminated the Capitals seven times in eight meetings, coming from behind in six of those series.
This collapse, though, might have been the most painful of them all, perhaps because nothing could have foretold a blowout of this magnitude. All but one of the previous six games in the series had been decided by only one goal, three of them in overtime.
"It was definitely anticlimactic," Boudreau said, referring to the first six games, which provided high drama as the NHL's top three scorers battled with everything on the line. "It certainly wasn't the way I would have envisioned it, scripted it, you know, whether we won or lost."
Boudreau revealed after the game that several of his key players had been playing through serious injuries, specifically acknowledging defenseman Mike Green and Ovechkin. It's also believed that Alexander Semin played through an injury that might have sidelined him in the regular season, while Tom Poti said he suffered a broken foot in Game 1 of this series.
What impact those injuries had on the series may never be known. This much, however, was clear: The Capitals, as a team, did not play with enough verve to earn a victory against a Penguins team that played with a sense of purpose from the opening faceoff.
Before the game was 23 minutes old, young Simeon Varlamov had yielded four goals on 18 shots and was replaced by veteran José Theodore. The Capitals' postseason run had been fueled by the 21-year-old rookie.
Varlamov, though, wasn't totally to blame. At least two of the goals he allowed were of questionable quality, but he also didn't get much help from his teammates, who were outplayed in almost every sense of the word. They took bad penalties. They lost critical puck battles, and they made mental miscues when they could least afford a letdown.
"Usually you have one or two players who have an off night, but not 15," Boudreau said. "I don't know how it happened, why it happened, but it did."
The night began with Ovechkin (one goal, three shots, five hits) being stopped by Marc-André Fleury (19 stops) on a breakaway just 3 minutes 1 second into the game with a brilliant glove save.
"I don't score on a breakaway," said Ovechkin, who had 14 points in the series, one more than Crosby. Both had eight goals.
Crosby, though, got what really mattered. He was gracious in victory, saying, "It feels good just because of the way the series went, not particularly because of me and him."
Despite all the pregame talk about the need for discipline from the least disciplined team in the playoffs, Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn was whistled for slashing Ruslan Fedotenko across the wrists with a two-handed chop along the boards.
One minute and seven seconds into the penalty, Crosby gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with yet another goal from the goal mouth, the same spot where he has done the majority of his scoring this series.
Sergei Gonchar, who returned from what was thought to be a serious knee injury he suffered in Game 4, whipped a wrist shot from the blueline that was deflected in front and went to Crosby. The Penguins captain craftily kicked the puck to his stick at the side of the net and fired it in at 12:36.
Before the Capitals could steady themselves, Penguins grinder Craig Adams had made it 2-0 only eight seconds later. Taking into account the opening period of Game 6, Washington was outshot 34-10 in the past two first periods.
Whatever was said between periods didn't work because in the first 28 seconds, Crosby carried the puck into the Capitals' zone, slammed on the brakes and dished the puck to a wide-open Bill Guerin, who ripped a one-timer past Varlamov from the high slot.
Only 1:44 after that, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang scored after racing into the zone wide, taking a pass from Evgeni Malkin and rifling a long shot from a tight angle. The shot went over Varlamov's glove, which was likely exposed as a weakness by the Penguins.
The Capitals didn't fare any better with Theodore back in goal. He yielded two goals on 12 shots, including Crosby's second goal on a breakaway early in the third period that put the Penguins ahead 6-1.
For the final two minutes of the game, the fans who had not left the arena stood and chanted, "Let's Go Caps," albeit in a somewhat somber tone.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," Laich said. "We did a lot of good things this year, but this game tonight is how this season is going to be remembered. It's a sour note to go out on."