Alexander Ovechkin’s inability to beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s on a clean breakaway just three minutes into game 7 on Wednesday night was simply foreshadowing of the horrible night this second round finale would become for the Washington Capitals, who were trounced 6-2 at the Verizon Center. The Penguins have now won the series, 4-3, and will move on to the Eastern Conference Finals to face either the Boston Bruins or the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Caps, who were outshot in every game this series, saw the contest start fairly well with the shots even at 4-4. Then Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn was called for slashing Ruslan Fedotenko when the Caps had four guys back to just #26 for the Pens. It was a stupid penalty and the Penguins seized the moment and the momentum as Sergei Gonchar, who returned to play game 7 with a heavy knee brace due to an injury in game 4, shot the puck through the Washington penalty killers and it deflected right to Sidney Crosby (two goals, one assist) at the side of the net, who buried it for a 1-0 Penguins lead.
What happened next probably decided this game as Washington won the face-off but Alexander Semin did not make a good play on the puck and it then bounced off of Brian Pothier in the Caps defensive zone right to Fedotenko inside the blue line and he quickly passed it to Craig Adams, who beat Simeon Varlamov on a shot #40 would like to have back. This was two Penguin goals in just eight seconds and a stunned Caps team would go on to be outshot 16-5 in the first period.
Any hope of getting back in the game were erased quickly 28 seconds into the second period as Morrisonn struggled to play the puck in the offensive zone and the Penguins broke back down ice with Bill Guerin blasting one by Varlamov for a 3-0 Pens lead. Then on the next shot Varlamov was beaten again by Kris Letang and it was 4-0 just 22 minutes into this contest and Varly’s night was over, as was the Caps season.
“I still thought after the first period, you know we have had bad periods before and always come back and had a good second or a good third and closed the gap. I thought when it was Simeon [Varlamov], after the third goal, I was thinking of pulling him because he looked really dejected and maybe I should have called a time out at that point. But, I think after the fourth goal the wind completely came out of his sails emotionally. He has been holding us in and done so much since he took over in Game 2 and I just thought it [his emotions] poured out of him. So that’s why I made the change then, I wish I had made the change one goal sooner,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.
Here are some thoughts and analysis on the game:
The Caps clearly were out of gas and energy tonight. Who knows if an Ovechkin goal would have mattered early on because the Penguins were flying all game? Boudreau said after the contest that the team didn’t have the emotion it needed while Pittsburgh did. He mentioned that as a road team sometimes it is easier to play a big game whereas the home team players are typically swamped with calls from numerous friends wanting tickets while the road team just gets together for dinner, goes to the hotel, and thinks about the game.
Morrisonn and Mike Green were on the ice for all three goals in the second period when the Penguins made it 5-0 and both were clearly struggling. After game five I saw Morrisonn leaving the rink and he was limping very badly on his leg, which explains why he was unable to keep up with some of the Penguins tonight. As for Green, everyone suspected he was playing injured this whole series and Boudreau confirmed it after the game. Green logged just 13:52 of ice time, including only 43 seconds in the third period, and he typically played at least 25 minutes a game this season. The coach would not get into specifics on the team’s injuries because he did not want to make it look like he was making excuses. We’ll find out more on Friday but I have secretly suspected all along that he is playing with a very badly injured shoulder because he has been avoiding hits on the boards, pretty much bailing every time someone went after him, and he has not been delivering any of the body checks he normally doles out. In addition, his shot did not seem right again, so I am deducing it is a shoulder injury for #52.
The other mildly surprising injury note of the night was that Ovechkin, who scored 14 points in the series, was playing hurt as well, although no specifics were given. Boudreau did say that had it been the regular season there is no way the Great #8 would have been playing.
I also suspect that Semin is hurt. I know he took a puck off the back of his legs early in the series and he missed several pre game skate sessions. Add all of these things up and it is easy to see why the Penguins dominated a lot of the play during this series. However, because of Varlamov’s strong play throughout the majority of the second round and Ovechkin’s ability to still produce while injured it allowed the Caps to get to a game 7. Had they not put the puck in their own net in the overtime losses (three and five) they might have still won this series. But give credit to the Penguins, they played well and deserved to win.
Washington never really tested what I considered to be the weak link of the Penguins, Fleury in net. The Caps struggled to get shots and go to the net in this series and that is ultimately what did them in. We’ll talk about the changes that are needed in the off-season but a power forward should be on GM George McPhee’s wish list. Guerin, who many thought the Caps would get at the trade deadline but ended up in Pittsburgh, had a big impact for the Pens against Washington.
As is the tradition in the NHL, each series ends with the handshake between players of both teams. This one was particularly interesting because of the build up and so-called animosity between the teams. It was interesting to see Ovechkin, who went last for Washington, go through the line. He had a discussion with Gonchar, who he hurt with his hit in game four, and you could see him explaining to Sergei that he was trying to lead with his shoulder and not injure him. The Great #8 also hugged fellow countrymen, Evgeni Malkin, and he wished Crosby good luck and told him to go win the Stanley Cup. Alexander the Great is a class act and Capitals fans should be proud to have him as their front man and leader.
This was a disappointing end to a very fun and record breaking season (especially in attendance figures) for the Caps. Next season will likely see every game at the Verizon Center sold out and television ratings should continue to increase. Give credit to a classy group of fans who stayed to the end of a blowout game and gave the Caps a two minute standing ovation for a good year. Also, the players deserve credit for thanking them as a group after the ceremonial handshake with Pittsburgh.
One final note, the Caps farm team (Hershey Bears) did defeat the Baby Pens in their seven games series thanks to shutouts by rookie goalie Michael Neuvirth in games six and seven. The Bears will now face the Boston Bruins farm team in the AHL Eastern Conference Finals, the Providence Bruins, in a seven game series that starts Saturday in Hershey (game two is Sunday in Chocolate Town as well).
That is it for tonight but I’ll have more on the team over the next several days.