The Pittsburgh Penguins are supporting their superstars and the Washington Capitals are betraying theirs. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference in what has evolved into a wildly entertaining playoff series that just might have the makings of a classic.
On the one side, you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the latter of whom scored the game-winner in the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime victory in Game 5 Saturday night to put his team ahead 3-2 in the series.
Crosby has been playing otherworldly in this year’s playoffs and is, in fact, shedding his reputation as a player who can’t put up gaudy goal-scoring numbers. After a slow start, Malkin has been rounding into form and is a big reason why the Penguins have two dangerous lines.
On the other side, you have Ovechkin, whom I have to presume is getting a little exasperated with his mates at the moment. In case you haven’t noticed, as well as Crosby and Malkin have played, Ovechkin has taken it to another level entirely. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about his game – everyone on the Penguins knows where he is and when he’s out there and they still seem powerless to stop him.
But unlike Crosby and Malkin, Ovechkin is getting almost no help. The Capitals defense corps has been so shaky – yes you, Mike Green – that Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had Sergei Fedorov out there as a defenseman on the penalty kill when the overtime goal was scored. Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin have failed to match Malkin in terms of playing shotgun and the rest of Washington’s forwards have failed to generate much of anything in the way of dangerous scoring chances.
You had to look really hard to see anyone not named Ovechkin generate much in the way of legitimate scoring chances. The Capitals simply need more from the likes of Fedorov, Brooks Laich and Backstrom if they want to win this series.
And after a brilliant one-and-a-half playoff rounds, it’s looking an awful lot as though the Simeon Varlamov revelation is coming off the tracks. If the Capitals get better goaltending in the past couple of games, there’s a good chance they’re on their way to the conference final by now.
While Marc-Andre Fleury looks poised and technically sound in the Pittsburgh net, Varlamov is beginning to get beaten on a regular basis to his glove side and is letting out the kinds of rebounds that are causing him to have to move around the net way too much and expend far too much effort. Varlamov is looking more than a little fatigued and if the Capitals had any confidence at all that Jose Theodore could stop the puck with any kind of reliable consistency, you’d have to think Boudreau would be looking at the possibility of putting him in there for Game 6 in Pittsburgh Monday night.
And you have to give the Penguins credit where it is due. Their defense corps isn’t perfect, but it galvanized quite nicely in the absence of Sergei Gonchar, who might be out for the rest of the playoffs after his knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin in Game 4. Unlike the Capitals, all four of their lines are playing – the Capitals’ fourth line barely saw the ice in Game 5 – and are proving it takes more than just one or two players to win a series.
Ovechkin is doing his best to try to prove otherwise and who knows? The way he’s playing he still just might pull it off.
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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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