The End Comes Quick

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 14, 2009

So, in the end, we waited seven games for eight seconds.

That's all it took. A Capitals season that built its drama for eight months, and brought an entire city, much of it populated by hockey agnostics, along for the jubilant ride, had the air taken out of it in less time than it takes to say, "Did the Penguins just score again?"

A Game 7 that was anticipated as the sine qua non of hockey superstar theater, with Alex Ovechkin's Caps in a showdown of showmen with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, was deflated in a blink. The first Pens goal came on one of Crosby's lizard-tongue flick-in goals on the Caps' doorstep at 12 minutes 36 seconds of the first period.

Before the Caps, especially 21-year-old goalie Simeon Varlamov, could collect their wits, the rookie had let a Penguin wrist shot skip between his skates for a soft goal.

After that, the deluge -- a 5-0 Pens lead, an eventual 6-2 Pens win and a game as boring, at least to those who came to roar in red, as the previous six were superb. "Definitely anticlimactic," said Coach Bruce Boudreau in the night's understatement.

Those two scores, the second coming so fast that the PA announcer hadn't even told the crowd who'd scored the first goal, fulfilled many ominous purposes. They silenced the crowd, emboldened the Pens after their Game 6 home loss, and, worst of all, crumpled young Varly. The Russian rookie had been the hero of the previous dozen games, and he may fill that role for a dozen more years.

But in the opening 2:12 of the second period, both Bill Guerin and Kris Letang lit the lamp behind Varlamov on shots like many he's been saving for a month. "He stole many games for us," the Caps' Chris Clark said. "He's the reason we got here."

Too bad, but hardly sad. He'll be back. The memory of a Game 7 win against the Rangers should help. Wisely, Boudreau pulled him at 4-0 before any more damage could be done to a psyche on which the Caps may depend for many springs. His expression blank, but with shock rather than his customary calm, Varlamov left the ice to an ovation that should be his dominant memory from a night to forget.

"After the third goal . . . he looked really dejected," Boudreau said. "And then after the fourth goal, I think the wind completely came out of his sails emotionally. He's done so much. . . . It just poured out of him.

"I wish I had maybe [made a change] one goal sooner."

This was coming, this deluge of goals, building like a storm. It wasn't inevitable. Even over a seven-game series, you can defy the probabilities, get beaten on the ice but still find a way to win. Hockey has a larger element of the random, the good bounce, the unpredictable deflection, the hot goalie, than any of our other sports.

But don't bet on it.

For six games, Pittsburgh outshot the Capitals, 226-159, yet only outscored them, 21-20. That huge gap in shots was no fluke, no quirky stat. It accurately measured the territorial dominance of the Pens in most periods of most games. It revealed how often the Caps left themselves exposed for odd-man rushes. And it revealed how often, at desperate moments, they were reduced to praying for a rookie to save them.

And, 205 times, Varly was there for them. Then, he blinked. When Boudreau pulled him, the shots on the scoreboard read Pens 18, Caps 7 and, for the series, a huge 244-166 superiority. The Caps' brass, as it plans for its still-luminous future, must confront, not avoid, the key point of this series: The Pens are still a level better.

The Caps' attack is superb. Despite being stuffed on a breakaway early in the first period, Ovechkin managed to score again and finished with eight goals and 14 points in his confrontation with Crosby, who had two goals and an assist last night to finish with eight goals and 13 points.

The Caps' goalie position is probably no longer a question mark, either, despite the Pens' gradual beat down of Varlamov with 17 goals in their last four meetings. But the defense in front of Varlamov, the inability to clear the crease, the constant goal-mouth opportunities for rebounds and tap-ins and those endless odd-man rushes -- that has to be fixed. Or this horrid heritage, with the Pens ending the Caps' season in seven of their eight playoff meetings since '91, is likely to continue.

"No answers. They played better," Ovechkin said. "It's good steps for us for sure. We can take good experience from this. But bad experience, too. We had 2-0 lead [in games], then twice lost in overtime. A little bit more push. We were so close. But close is not good enough. It will feel terrible. But it is what it is."

After this game, Boudreau said he benched Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green in the final period because "he wasn't very good," then added, when asked if Green had been hurt throughout the series: "Yup. I'm not going to go into it now. It sounds like making excuses for why he played so bad."

And Ovechkin, was he, as rumored, hurting, too? "If this was the regular season, he wouldn't be playing," said Boudreau, "but he was magnificent."

The Caps, in their flattering descriptions of the Pens, gave hints as to where they need to improve. "We work hard but sometimes we're not as smart as we need to be," Brian Pothier said. "They have two of the most prolific scorers in hockey. They have a few defensemen who can really score. But the others, who are not as gifted, they grind you. They get you in your end and they just really make it hard for you.

"We do that, too," Pothier added.

But not nearly as well.

The Caps have their fantasies of what might have been. "If Alex had put that one in on the breakaway [with the game scoreless], who knows?" Boudreau said. "But we just weren't able to get up emotionally tonight. Pittsburgh was definitely the better team."

Despite a final eyesore game, unworthy of the best regular season in team history (108 points) or the scintillating six games that preceded it, the Caps ended the night by raising their sticks, first the Great Eight and then the rest of the team, to the packed crowd that stayed until the end to cheer them.

"We're very close to being a very good team," Boudreau said. "Maybe all it is is a little more maturity. Next year, I'll be very disappointed if we aren't in the final four" in the playoffs.

That would, perhaps, require another meeting with the Penguins -- one with a different outcome. When the Caps think back on this season, and the inspired play that turned Washington into an insipient Hockeytown, they should burst their sweaters. But when they think of the two-games-to-none lead they squandered to the Pens, when they consider the final shot tally for this series (256-180), when they realize that neither Alexander Semin nor Green scored a single goal and when their own coach says they came out flat for a Game 7 in their own building, they should realize how far they still must travel.

Now, they are a thrilling regular season team. But they are not yet a great playoff team, a club that doesn't need a rookie goalie to resuscitate it in the first round. All that is work for the future, labor that, unlike this final game, should be a pleasure to watch.

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