PITTSBURGH – On a night the Pittsburgh Penguins felt satisfied to limit Alex Ovechkin to one goal, they needed 3 1/2 periods and a huge disparity in shots and power plays before figuring out how to beat the Washington Capitals and whiz kid goalie Simeon Varlamov.
They did it by turning Sidney Crosby, the goal-scorer, back into Crosby, the exceptional setup man, and shaking NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin out of a slump that was threatening to put them out of the playoffs.
Kris Letang scored his first career playoff goal on a shot from the point at 11:23 of overtime after Crosby’s faceoff win and the Penguins avoided going down three games to the Capitals by winning 3-2 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday night.
Letang’s shot deflected off Capitals defenceman Shaone Morrisonn and past the 21-year-old Varlamov, who had stopped nearly everything the Penguins threw at him while making 39 saves. Washington scored first – on a goal by, who else, Ovechkin – then let Pittsburgh control the play for most of the game.
The Penguins led 42-23 in shots and 7-2 in power plays.
“We knew we had Tanger set up for a one-timer if we won it clean,” Crosby said. “I just got it back to (Mark) Eaton and we got a good bounce there. We’ve been working on those plays, so it’s nice to see when it works.”
Just in time, too, as the victory prevented a near-certain series loss for Pittsburgh. No NHL team has rallied from a 3-0 playoff deficit in 34 years.
“The guys could have got frustrated, we kept with it and stuck with it and we eventually got rewarded,” Crosby said. “Any time you go down 2-0 on the road, you know when you come home you’ve got to respond.”
Crosby didn’t score in Game 3 but set up goals by Malkin and Letang for his first assists in six games. Letang, a defenceman, was uncertain he would play until earlier Wednesday because of a shoulder injury, then helped the Penguins win their sixth consecutive overtime playoff game, five by 3-2 scores.
“You obviously like to take the first one on the road, it’s probably the easiest, you come in and they’re all excited, but it was a great game and now we need to refocus and try to get a win on Friday (in Game 4),” said David Steckel, who lost the faceoff to Crosby.
Malkin, quiet in the first two games as Crosby and Ovechkin dominated with four goals each, snapped off a wrist shot from the high slot on a power play with 4:59 remaining in the third period to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 edge.
“He (Malkin) was at another level,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He was dominant with the puck and he had the goal, which was fantastic.”
Despite getting his eighth goal of the post-season and fifth in three games, Ovechkin was largely controlled, although he had five shots.
“We didn’t play our game,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to talk about Varlamov. I don’t want to talk about the referees, too. They only had two penalties, it’s kind of a joke.”
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Varlamov nearly stole the game, and added he disliked the officiating nearly as much as Ovechkin.
“When you get a goaltending effort like that, you have to win because they don’t come around every day,” Boudreau said. “I think we might have deserved the penalties, but they sure as hell deserved a few more than they got.”
Pittsburgh pressed constantly for the go-ahead goal after Ruslan Fedotenko tied it near the midpoint of the second period, throwing flurry after flurry at Varlamov – the cool-as-it-gets rookie who played only six games during the season. Malkin finally got a shot through with Bill Guerin screening in front.
But it wasn’t enough to win it.
The Capitals, scoreless and badly outshot since Ovechkin scored off a seemingly harmless dump-in by Mike Green 83 seconds into the game, got the tying goal with 1:50 to play on a bad-angle shot by Nicklas Backstrom from behind the goal line.
With Washington on its first power play since before the halfway point of the first period, Ovechkin got the puck down low to Backstrom and he banked it in off goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s back.
As in each of the previous two games of a tightly played, physical and fast-paced series, the visiting team got the first goal and controlled the early tempo only to have the home team regain momentum.
The Penguins, badly outplayed in the opening 10 minutes, tied it at 9:29 of the second when Fedotenko wristed a shot past Varlamov for the first goal of the series by a Penguins forward other than Crosby.
Notes: The Capitals previously were 3-0 when tied after two periods. … Pittsburgh is 6-2 against Washington in Game 3s and 7-3 in Game 3s when down 2-0 in a series. … The Penguins rallied to win after trailing Washington by 2-0 in 1992 and 1996.