Hockey fans really couldn’t have asked for more from the Washington-Pittsburgh game Monday night in Steeltown, USA. Big hits, highlight-reel saves, dynamic offensive displays, a rabid crowd and some of the world’s most skilled players added up to what was easily one of the best games of the 2009 post-season to date.
By all rights, the Capitals should be planning their spring golf games by now. Outshot 18-5 in the first period and 25-11 through two stanzas, the Caps weathered the storm, somehow managing to make a 20-minute game out of it, even after giving up a tying-goal off the stick of Mark Eaton in the 39th minute. Were it not for Washington rookie netminder Simeon Varlamov — whom I questioned Monday morning during the THN.com Playoff Shootout — it would have been lights out for the Caps 15 minutes in.
But it wasn’t. And what fans were treated to was a frantic, back-and-forth third period that saw the Pens open with a lead-changing power play tally less than five minutes in; before the Caps regained the lead 87 seconds later (How’s that for irony?) with two goals, 29 seconds apart.
But No. 87 — a man possessed during the final period — wouldn’t allow his team to lose, tying the game once again with less than four-and-a-half minutes to play. What came next was some of the most frenetic hockey of the post-season, including a Pittsburgh power play to finish the third period during which the Pens looked destined to score.
At the end of regulation, the shots were 39-20 in favour of the home side, but Washington had answered a number of questions after losing three in a row to face elimination. Varlamov showed his mettle, keeping his team in the game when his skaters were being outplayed, and Washington was able to find offense from sources other than Alex Ovechkin: Viktor Kozlov scored twice, Tomas Fleischmann once and Alexander Semin once. Ovechkin did notch three assists, but didn’t have to do it all for his team, for the first time this series.
(Fleischmann even joked during a between-periods interview that the pressure to score was all on Ovechkin, not the Caps generally.)
Heading into overtime, Pittsburgh had all the momentum with a home crowd ready to erupt and a goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, with a 5-0 overtime playoff record.
Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi — who was excellent all night — almost made it seven of 12 overtime games to end within the first five minutes this year when he hit the crossbar early on a screened point shot. But it was Washington’s David Steckel who did the damage with a tip-in 6:22 into the extra frame, sending the series back to the U.S. capital for Game 7 Wednesday night; something every fan outside of Pittsburgh and Washington was likely hoping for when this series began.
(For a little more irony, these teams’ American League squads — the Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — are also locked in a playoff series that is going seven games. That grudge match goes Tuesday in Hershey)
Heading into Wednesday’s finale, you’ve got to think the Caps will have the upper hand. They’ll be at home, their goaltender looks to have regained his form, the secondary scorers are again alive and the team survived everything Crosby and the Pens could throw at them.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will be licking its wounds, lamenting the one that got away. Not only were the Pens unable to put Washington away despite dominating most of the night, they were unable win when Ovechkin was relatively contained. Everyone should expect him to play much better come Wednesday with the added fuel of a home crowd revving his engines.
Pittsburgh was the better team Monday night. But none of that matters now. It’ll be the Pens turn to weather a storm — the “Red Storm” — come Wednesday at the Verizon Center. Can’t wait.
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