Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins lived up to the hype today as the two teams combined to play some great up and down hockey with the Caps prevailing, 3-2, primarily because of rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov (pronounced SEHM-yahn var-LA-mohv). Hockey and local fans by now have seen “The Save” that Varlamov (34 saves) made today on Sidney Crosby in a 2-2 game with just over two minutes to go in the second period [To see the save again go to: http://www.kuklaskorner.com/index.php/hockey/comments/simeon_varlamov_save_on_crosby/]. Game two is Monday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center.
Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau had the following to say about a save that will be talked about for a long time if the Caps manage to win this series.
“It was a great save. There’s no doubt. Goalies are taught never give up. You look at all the great goalies that are in hockey nowadays. No matter where the play is, they never give up. They keep fighting. And that’s the only way the [Martin] Brodeurs, the Tim Thomases and the [Roberto] Luongos look like they make great saves, it’s because they never quit on the puck…It was obviously a turning point because they would have had the lead and we would have had to play catch up.”
Much like game seven of the first round against the Rangers, the Caps came out sluggish today. It was almost as if they were nervous and not sure what to expect from the Penguins, who took a 1-0 lead just 4:09 into the game on a wicked Crosby wrister from the slot after John Erskine took himself out of a position in the neutral zone trying to make an ill-advised hit on Bill Guerin. The attempted hit allowed #87 to gather the puck and come flying into the offensive zone and the superstar got Brian Pothier backing up allowing Sid the Kid time to move to the prime scoring zone between the circles and fire top shelf on Varlamov. Pittsburgh would continue to carry the play in the first 11 plus minutes and they held an 11-2 shots advantage at that point.
However, the Caps began to find their legs and right after Pascal Dupuis of the Pens missed what seemed to be an open net that would have given Pittsburgh a two goal lead, Dave Steckel made a great breakout pass to Brooks Laich who carried the puck up the center of the ice and saucered it nicely to Matt Bradley on the right wing boards on a three on two rush. #10 then blasted the puck from right near where he scored on Henrik Lundqvist of New York in game five of the first round and Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made the save but the rebound bounced right up the slot and Steckel was charging right down on the net and buried the puck under Fleury’s pads for his first goal of the playoffs to even things up. It was exactly the kind of goal Washington needed and it got them energized.
For the rest of the period the Caps dominated and after Sergei Gonchar was called for a delay of game penalty for flipping the puck over the glass, Alexander Ovechkin made a great play at neutral ice on the power play and drew a hooking call on former Capital Matt Cooke. With the two man advantage the Caps put together a beautiful passing play with Nicklas Backstrom sending the puck to Alexander Semin at the point in the middle of the ice and when #28 wound up to fire away he froze Fleury, but instead of shooting he slap passed the puck to Ovechkin, who then deposited it into the empty net for a 2-1 Caps lead.
Washington had several chances after that to make it a two goal lead and after 30 minutes they had hit a combined four posts and cross bars, including two by the Great #8 (one of which would have made it 3-1 after an outstanding cross ice pass from Mike Green). However, with 7:06 left in the 2nd period the Penguins got the break they needed when a seemingly harmless Mark Eaton point blast was deflected ever so slightly by Boyd Gordon and the puck went under Varlamov’s glove to tie the game up. It was a shot that #40 couldn’t be totally faulted on because of the deflection but he definitely would have liked to have it back.
The stage was then set for a great third period and after Washington killed off Pittsburgh’s fifth power play of the day (to only two for the Caps), another great Washington passing play led to the game winner. This goal, like the first Washington tally, once again came in transition as the Penguins had a three on three in the Caps zone but Petr Sykora ripped a long blast wide and hard off the boards and the puck caromed all the way out to center ice to Backstrom who chipped it cross ice to Semin. Semin then entered the zone and once again set the passing play up by faking a shot just inside the blue line but instead the highly skilled winger fired it over to Backstrom down low and #19 faked Gonchar to the ice and then slid the puck to an all alone Tomas Fleischmann in front, who then flipped it over Fleury to make it 3-2 with 18:14 left.
Immediately after the game Boudreau commented on Washington’s opponent, who could have won this game as well had it not been for Varlamov and some superb Caps penalty killing.
“We’re in for a heck of a series because that’s a very good hockey club we’re playing.”
In my series preview, I mentioned that the Caps strategy, according to Boudreau, was to limit turnovers and get the puck deep on the Penguins. Washington struggled with that game plan at times today, something not lost on the coach or the players I spoke with.
“Our strategy is to put the puck deep and work them down low'” said Caps defenseman Milan Jurcina, who had 16:02 of ice time today and is playing some of his best hockey.
“[The message from Coach was to] Get pucks deep. We were trying to be too cute at the opposing blue line and we turned pucks over. We need to get our giveaways down and be more intelligent with it and we have to play behind their D, that is the key. They have great D and they are a team that can quick strike against you,” said Steckel, who was the game’s number two star and received the Caps red hard hat from his teammates for his goal plus his outstanding 5:43 of penalty killing time and 11-6 face-off record.
“We had alot of giveaways and if you have that many than you are not taking advantage of your opportunities to get the puck in their zone and consequently they had 36 shots on goal so it is something we have to revisit. We’ll look at it on the video and see if we were just trying to do too much or we were forced into it or what have you,” finished Boudreau.
If Washington can be more effective in dumping the puck in Pittsburgh’s end and getting it deep they could control the play much more. Gonchar, who was “whooped” nearly every time he had the puck, coughed the biscuit up several times in his own end as did several other Penguins defensemen when they were under some duress. If the Caps can just stop being so fancy and cute in the neutral zone, which will limit turnovers, then they have a very good chance to prevail in this series.
Here are some other thoughts and analysis on Saturday’s game:
Fleischmann had his best game of the playoffs scoring the game winner but he also did well on the penalty kill, logging 2:53. He had 16:29 of ice time and also hit a cross bar in the first period. Steckel felt that his teammates time was coming and commented on the forwards play. “It’d be a concern if he wasn’t scoring because he wasn’t getting chances, but he’s been getting them and they just haven’t gone in.”
Captain Chris Clark did not have a good game. He took two penalties, was -1, and only logged 5:23 of ice time. On the second Penguins goal Clark was down too low in the corner instead of being on his man in the defensive zone (Eaton). That allowed the big defenseman to have time and unleash the blast that Varlamov missed. #17 needs to keep moving his feet in this series because Pittsburgh is a very fast team.
Pittsburgh had a slight edge in scoring chances but they had a big edge in power plays, five to two. I thought the referees, and in particular Kevin Pollock, was not consistent in his calls. The interference he called on Sergei Fedorov was the same type of play the Penguins made a few times during the game but got away with. In fact, Kris Letang interfered with Semin behind the Pens net just before #91 was called for his infraction. Washington did do a great job of killing those five Penguin power plays awarded to them by the zebras.
“We know they are really good on the power play so we just have to stay out of the box. When they have a chance they are shooting everything from the blue line and crashing the net. They have big body’s, like [Jordan] Staal, and all of these guys are pretty quick too so you just have to block them out,” said Jurcina.
Pittsburgh won the overall face-off battle 32-28 but the Caps were 14-4 in the third period. Backstrom (two assists) had his worst game from the dot (3-10) at home in at least two months.
Overall, the Caps can thank Varlamov for this win today despite giving up one shaky goal.
“I’m sure [Varly] would be the first one to tell you that he let in a soft one tonight but the way he responded was tremendous. That save he made their in the second period [on Crosby] turned the momentum around because they were giving it to us again. So it was vital for us,” said Steckel.
“It was huge, you know, he make mistake when they score the second goal and he makes unbelievable save in last ten minutes of the second period and give us a chance to win the game,” finished Ovechkin.
By the way, if you aren’t going to any of the games and are in the Baltimore area please head over to Gary Rissling’s bar, the Silver Spring Mining Company on Belair Road in Perry Hall, to hang out with other Caps fans and Rock the Red.