Capital Star Shine Again
Monday night began was a crucial game in this Conference Semi-Final Series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals entered the game hoping to hold on to home ice advantage and take command of the series with a 2 game to none lead. This would put all of the pressure on the pads of the Penguins as the series picks up on Wednesday, in Pittsburgh.
With a win in game two, the Penguins would have gotten exactly what they were looking for: a split in Washington, giving the Penguins the home ice advantage. As the lower seed in this series, if the Penguins were to steal game two they would be heading back to Pittsburgh with the momentum and the advantage of having 3 of the remaining 5 games in this series played on their home ice.
After an entertaining and exciting game 1, we learned one thing for sure: each game could go either way and both teams would have to bring their best if they want to win this series and advance to the Conference Finals. The question would be which team would want it more, and more decidedly, which goalie would bring their best to the ice. Would Fleury tie this series for the Penguins or would the red hot Varlamov carry the Capitals to a commanding 2-0 lead.
Just as in game one, the first period of game two got off to a quick start. Both teams wasted no time in getting the puck moving up and down the ice. The Penguins had to be aware that one of the reasons they lost the first game was because Washington was the more physical team. At the beginning of this game it seemed as though the Penguins were determined to change that trend as they came out aggressively and physically, landing several big shots on the Capitals. One of those hits was by Sidney Crosby which led to an early two on one break. Varlamov read the play well and was at the post to meet the shot of Guerin and turn it away.
After seeing that save, I was reminded of Varlamov’s ability to consistently send the rebounds of shots that he can not handle off to the side of the ice. It seems as though you never see him give a rebound up in front of the net. This is huge for goalies as the first goal the Caps had in game 1 was a direct result of a rebound given up right in the center of the ice. By continuously sending the rebounds off to the side, Varlamov prevents the Penguins from getting cheep goals, goals which often times decide close playoff games.
Just as I was thinking this, the Penguins went onto a power play as a result of Semin loosing his cool. Consequently, they got on the board first. While I was thinking about how remarkable it was that Varlamov never seems to give up easy rebounds, Gonchar took a shot from inside the blue line and Varlamov knocked it down in front of the net and Crosby was on the door step to put it between the legs of the Caps goalie and give the Penguins the early lead. This is the kind of easy goal the Capitals need to prevent as Crosby makes a living by scoring around the net. Varlamov needs to clean up the rebounds and the Capital defenders need to stay physical and make sure they push the Penguins away from the front of the goal, thus preventing cheap goals on deflections and as a result of rebounds.
The Penguins were able to take control of the period as they were much more aggressive and physically dominating in the period. They were able to land a number of clean checks on the Capital players, which seemed to unnerve the Caps a bit as they took several bad penalties. The worse of which was when the Caps were just about to head to the power play until Chris Clark retaliated with an elbow to the face of Letang thereby nullifying the penalty to Guerin.
Varlamov was really able to bail out his team and keep the game a 1 goal game as he made several huge saves while the Penguins were on a 5-3 power play. Varlamov once again proved why Capitals fans are so excited about the future of this team, as they see years of this 21-year-old protecting their net. His great play at the end of the period was able to finally get the home crowd into the game after Pittsburgh successfully quieted them down.
While unable to light the lamp in the first period, it was not due to a lack of opportunities. They had some good scoring chances; they were just never able to capitalize on them. This was not the case at the beginning of the second period, as they were able to take advantage of an opportunity as Fedorov quickly transitioned the puck into the offensive end where he was able to hit Kozlov with a pass in the center of the ice drawing two defenders his way. Kozlov quickly moved the puck to his left where he as able to locate Ovechkin, who sent a missile into the lower left portion of the goal, tying the game at one. The quick transition offense for the Capitals was able to create a great opportunity, one in which Ovechkin did not let pass. This was the type of puck movement that the Capitals are looking for and need, if they want to win this series. Anytime you can line Ovechkin up for an uncontested shot, he will score, as his combination of power and accuracy is unstoppable.
The Capitals were able to come out quick and change the momentum of the game. They were able to control the puck more in what appeared to be a less physical second period while using their speed in transition to generate numerous scoring chances. They were continuously turned away and just past the halfway mark of the period, Crosby and the Penguins tried to reclaim the momentum. Once again Crosby was able to light the lamp on a garbage goal knocked in from right in front of the net. Not to take anything away from the Penguins as they earned the goal with their puck movement, but the Capitals once again let the puck bounce free right in front of Varlamov and the inability to get a body on Crosby cost the Capitals again as they fell behind 2-1.
The Penguins were able to carry the momentum for the next five minutes, earning several great chances at taking a 2 goal lead, but Varlamov continued his jaw-dropping performance as he made several great saves. Steckel took advantage of this great effort by the Caps goaltender, as he put home a deflection off of Sloan to tie the game at 2 with four minutes to go in the 2nd period.
The third period began tied and if the prior games this season were any indication this would be a good sign for Caps fans. The Capitals outscored the Penguins during the regular season 10-1 and continued that trend in game 1 outscoring the caps one to nothing. The Capitals hoped this trend would continue as looked to stay unbeaten against the Penguins this year and open up a 2 game to none lead.
The Penguins were hoping to change that trend as they opened up dominating the final period of play. After killing the remainder of a second period penalty the Penguins went on about a 9 minute attack. It seemed like the entire portion of this period was spent in the offensive zone for the Penguins and it felt to us Capitals fans that they may have even been on an extended power play. They kept the pressure on but, as seems to be the theme of every paragraph of every hockey blog I write, Varlamov continued to make save after save keeping his team in the game, tied at 2.
After killing the Penguins first actual power play of the period, the Capitals quickly went on the attack after Malkin’s tripping penalty put the Caps on the power play. They had two minutes but they only need four seconds as Backstrom won the face off in the Penguins zone sending the puck back to his right to Green. Ovechkin once again got wide open and Green found him. Ovechkin sent another shot buzzing by the elbow on Fluery’s stick side. There was nothing he could do to prevent the Caps from taking their first lead of the game, 3-2.
Ovechkin broke loose again, showing off his speed in transition as he got the puck around mid-ice, skated into the Penguins zone, and then showed off (what I feel is) the league’s most powerful shot. Ovechkin sent a shot over the glove side shoulder to seal the game for the Caps and give himself his first career playoff hat-trick. The Penguins were able to get a power play goal, giving Crosby a hat-trick of his own at thirty seconds to go, but that was too little too late.
The Caps and Penguins game entered the final period even. The Penguins dominated the first half plus part of this period. They could not get past the great Varlamov. Just then, like a vulture, Ovechkin swooped in and took advantage of the first Penguin mistake of the period. That was all they needed as the recent trend of the Caps dominating the score board in the final period against the Penguins continued. They scored two more times this game which made the season and post season total 13 third period goals for the Capitals to only 2 for the Penguins.
That is how you close out a game and with Varlamov consistently keeping this team in the game this ability to close could end this series a lot earlier then most anticipated. To Pittsburgh we go, Wednesday night, Caps leading 2 games to none.
The Caps have the offense that many fear, and now thanks to a 21-year-old net minder, they are the complete team that just might be able to make a run at the Stanley Cup.