WASHINGTON – As per his usual routine, Sidney Crosby took to the practice rink Sunday and replayed the top scoring chances he missed in his previous game.
In this case, it meant shooting through a vacant crease from only a few feet away.
“Usually you’re not working on an open net,” Crosby said. “But I had to.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain was the victim of one of the best saves in recent playoff memory, pulled off by a rookie who has played only a handful of games.
After trading passes in a fluid sequence with Chris Kunitz, Crosby had the puck coming his way with Washington Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov well out of position. A routine wrister off the feed was all that was needed to give the visitors the lead in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Not so fast. Varlamov, who was completely out of the crease, spun around and managed to stop the puck with the heel of his stick just at the goal line. Crosby made a left turn and raised his right hand as if to celebrate – then kept skating when he realized that the puck didn’t go in.
“The biggest thing was that he had enough strength on his stick to stop it,” Capitals captain Chris Clark said. “Because he was reaching back and almost falling over. It’s one thing to get a piece of it, but to actually get enough of it to stop it, I thought that was the most remarkable thing.”
Save of the Season? Maybe, maybe not. There might be others just as acrobatic, but the circumstances certainly make this one a candidate.
Consider the 21-year-old Varlamov had played in only six regular season NHL games before this post-season.
Consider that Crosby is the biggest star in the league.
Consider that the Penguins-Capitals rivalry is one of the NHL’s most intense.
Consider that the score was tied 2-2 with 2:03 left in the second period, and that earlier in the period Varlamov had made one of his few mistakes of the playoffs by allowing a soft goal on a long slapshot by Mark Eaton.
Consider that, because of the save, the Capitals didn’t have to play catch-up late in the game and won 3-2 behind Tomas Fleischmann’s goal in third period.
“It was a great save at the right time,” Washington general manager George McPhee said.
In hindsight, it’s easy to suggest that Crosby took the open net for granted and should have put a little more oomph on the shot – or at least lifted the puck off the ice. Just a fraction more effort would have been enough to get the goal.
“Those are ones that really, really sting after a game, especially if you lose,” Clark said. “You miss an empty net and you really think about it for a long time. He scores a lot of goals in the league, so maybe he can get over it quicker.”
Having re-enacted the shot at practice, Crosby indicated he had indeed already put the missed opportunity behind him.
“It’s happens,” Crosby said. “It’s one of those things as a player you have to forget about, and there’s the next game so hopefully I make up for it.”
That next game is Monday night, when the Penguins hope to achieve a split of the first two before the series heads to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.
As for Varlamov, the out-of-nowhere save is worth a page unto itself in his out-of-nowhere story. Getting a chance after Jose Theodore was benched after Game 1 of the first-round series against the New York Rangers, the young Russian is now 5-2 with a 1.29 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage in seven playoff starts. He was won four straight games, tying the Capitals franchise record.
“It’s good goaltending,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “He made some big saves, key saves, and that means we’ve got to get more chances and second chances at him.”
The Penguins outshot the Capitals 37-26 and controlled much of the first period. However, Pittsburgh went 0-for-5 on the power play and is mired in an 0-for-17 power-play drought over four games.
“There are times when you lose and you feel like ‘Jeez, we’ve got to go back and make some huge adjustments here,’ and that’s not the case this last game,” Crosby said. “We felt like we did some really good things. We want to make sure our power play’s better, but for the most part we did a lot of good things.”