In dire need of a win to get the series started without falling behind the eight-ball right away, the Caps used another sparkling goaltending effort from rookie Simeon Varlamov and a stifling 3rd period defensive effort to edge the Penguins, 3-2, at Verizon Center Saturday afternoon.
Washington leads the best-of-7 series, 1-0, with Game 2 set for Monday night in D.C.
The Caps scored twice in the first period (Steckel and Ovechkin) and held a 2-1 lead after one but Pittsburgh rebounded for a second period goal to knot the game at 2-2 heading into the 3rd period.
Early in the final stanza, Nicklas Backstrom sent a fancy short-range to Thomas Fleischmann and he re-directed it past Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for the eventual game-winning tally. It was a much-needed goal for Fleischmann, who essentially needed an Amber Alert in the New York series…he was missing THAT much. The Caps played strong team defense in the game’s final 10 minutes and Varlamov made several superb saves down the stretch, but it was his save in the 2nd period on Sydney Crosby that will lead the highlights tonight on the 4-letter network. They’re already calling this one “the save of the playoffs”.
Pittsburgh didn’t play poorly in dropping Game 1. They out-shot Washington (36-26) and had more “quality” scoring chances than did the Caps. Fleury was very good in goal for Pittsburgh, but Varlamov was just a hair better.
The Pens did a nice job of keeping Alex Ovechkin in check, his only goal coming on a 5-on-3 power play in the first period when he swiped the puck into a nearly empty net. In fairness, had you told the visitors before the game that two of the three Washington goals would come from Steckel and Fleischmann, they would have assumed victory and a 1-0 series lead for Pittsburgh.
On the flip side, the Caps worked some magic on the high-scoring Pens trio of Crosby/Malkin/Staal. Crosby tallied early in the first period but Malkin and Staal were both held without a goal. Washington’s defense has been greatly enhanced by the surprising play of late of defenseman Milan Jurcina, who was a liability in last spring’s playoff loss to the Flyers but was easily the team’s best defensive player in the 7-game series win over the Rangers and was again solid on Saturday in Game 1 against Pittsburgh. The Caps quite clearly went into Game 1 thinking “defense first” – not the easiest thing in the world to do with Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom itching to light up the scoreboard – and it paid off richly on Saturday with the Game 1 victory.