Dave Steckel had the game on his stick in overtime in game five and the puck bounced on him and he missed wide with an apparent open net between the Caps and victory. Just over 3 minutes later Evgeni Malkin scored off of Tom Poti to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 OT win over the Caps and take a 3-2 series lead. Tonight, it was redemption for Steckel as he deflected in a Brooks Laich shot off of a face-off win (Matt Bradley made a good play on the boards to get the puck to Laich) past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give Washington a thrilling, 5-4, OT victory in Pittsburgh to force game seven at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night. This win was huge for Washington as they had lost 7 straight overtime games in the playoffs and were 1-4 in the previous game six contests against the Penguins. The Caps are now 7-1 in elimination games (6-1 in the playoffs) under coach Bruce Boudreau.
This game started poorly for the Caps as the Penguins came out ready to bury them and their season, but thanks to some superb two man short penalty killing by Washington with the Pens up a goal and great goaltending by Simeon Varlamov throughout the period the Caps only trailed by that goal despite being outshot 18-5. As Boudreau mentioned in his post game press conference, he referenced to his players some instances where the Caps had done the same thing to other teams during the season and it came back to bite them because they couldn’t close the deal. The words seemed to work because after that the Caps were a much better team but as Boudreau continues to say, Pittsburgh is really good too so this one naturally went down to the wire (this was the third OT game of the series and fifth one goal game).
The second period was much more Caps style of hockey and not the wide open type we’ve seen where the Penguins seemed to have thrived in generating odd man rushes against Washington (Guerin’s goal in the first period was a two on one with Crosby against Poti). Viktor Kozlov (two goals and +2) scored to tie the game up and then Alexander Semin, who I and many others have called out for not producing so far in this series, delivered with a great effort to draw a penalty, kept it going playing tough on the boards, and then got the puck to Sergei Fedorov who shot and Tomas Fleischmann put in the rebound to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The Caps then could not hold the lead as Mark Eaton scored on a Pittsburgh power play (Brian Pothier was off for interference) with 34 seconds left in the period.
The third period saw the Caps take another costly penalty (Steckel slash) and the Penguins scored on the power play (2 for 5 on the night) to go up 3-2. However, Boudreau’s boys aren’t quitters and Semin delivered again first by drawing a penalty on his nemesis in this series, Brooks Orpik, and then firing from the left wing boards just 58 seconds later with Laich screening Fleury and the puck went in off of #21′s leg for the goal (scoring change came after the game). It seemed to stun the Penguins and then Kozlov struck from a bad angle off of a great play by Nicklas Backstrom to give the Caps a 4-3 lead. The problem though, was Washington seemed to struggle from there appearing to play not to lose, and when Bradley couldn’t get the puck out of the zone, Orpik shot it on net and Sidney Crosby was able to outwork John Erskine in front of Varlamov and tie it up with just 4:18 to go. But that set the stage for the overtime and Washington finally got a couple of breaks as Rob Scuderi hit the cross bar early in the extra session before Steckel’s great deflection.
Here are some other thoughts and analysis on tonight’s game:
Alexander Ovechkin was great again despite not scoring a goal. He had three assists, took five shots, and was +3 overall. He now has 10 goals and 10 assists in 13 playoff games. He leads the NHL in playoff points, is tied with Crosby in goals, and is the plus/minus leader at +11.
Semin played by far his best game of the series with two assists and was +1. He drew two key penalties (although one did not get called due to Fleischmann’s goal while the referees had their right arm up) and was moving his feet. He did a great job back checking Malkin, something he is very good at when he wants to be. He is a highly skilled player that can be great but he needs to put his mind to it and shrug off nagging injuries.
I thought the slashing call on Laich with 2:02 left in regulation was brutal as he only had one hand on the stick when he did it. Chris Kunitz of the Pens has been able to get that call in two key situations this playoffs (he drew a slashing penalty against the Flyers in overtime in the first round). Fortunately, Washington had a great penalty kill and forced overtime.
Chris Clark only played 2:13 (4 shifts) and Jay Beagle only 2:06 (4 shifts) and both were on the ice when Crosby and Guerin got the first goal on a two on one. The Caps need to stop playing with fire so much by giving up odd man rushes. Pittsburgh has been getting them from Washington turnovers at the Pens blue line and also from the Caps making ill timed hits at the red line. I know the Caps want to be physical but they need to be smarter about their positioning.
Malkin had three assists but he was even for the game (he was on the ice on Steckel’s GWG). Crosby was very good as well with a goal and an assist. As I wrote after game five, for Ovechkin and the Caps to defeat a very good Penguins team they need production from Semin and tonight he delivered.
An NHL scout told me before the series that he thought it could come down to goaltending and he said Varlamov is better than Fleury. He also said during game five, with Washington down 3-2 in the third period, that the Caps just need to get pucks on net because Fleury can’t handle the pressure. Shortly thereafter Washington scored before losing in overtime. To me the keys for the Caps on Wednesday will be to not give up odd man rushes, stay out of the box and get more shots on Fleury. Plain and simple, Washington can achieve this by continually moving their feet like Semin finally did tonight.
Programming Note: I’ll be on the Comcast Morning Show at 730am on Tuesday with Drew Forrester to discuss this AMAZING series!