Varlamov Saves Victory for Capitals in Game One
The Caps got off on the right foot, or I guess the right skate, in round two as they pulled off the victory in game one, winning Saturday’s game in Washington 3 to 2.
The game got off to a fast start as each team had an early scoring chance in the first minute of the game, both as a result of early giveaways in the defensive end of the opposing teams. The frenetic pace continued as the puck traveled quickly from end to end with each team getting several more opportunities to score and get the early lead.
Washington came out and played with a lot of early energy and excitement as the crowd was boisterous and loud. It seemed as though the Capitals were determined to set the tone of this game, and perhaps this series, with their physical style of play as they were able to land several crushing hits early.
Pittsburgh was able to withstand the early energy felt throughout the stadium and break through with the series’ first score just five minutes into the game. The NHL’s best playoff goalie, Simeon Varlamov, was able to turn away several earlier Penguin scoring opportunities but there was little he could do as Crosby broke free in transition off a beautiful feed from Guerin. Guerin saw the Washington Capitals defense out of position, cheating up the ice too far, and feed the puck to Crosby, in stride, as he skated to the center of the ice and was able to snap a shot right over the shoulder of Varlamov. (If the Capitals hope to win this series then can not continue to allow this to happen.) There is too much speed on the Penguins so the Capitals defenders will need to stay more disciplined, take fewer chances at the blue line, and make sure they stay between their goal and the Pittsburgh attackers.
The Capitals continued on the defensive for most of the first period as they were clearly overwhelmed by the speed that the Penguins possess. The first fourteen minutes of the game saw the Penguins in complete control as the were able to get to pretty much every free puck, force countless turnovers from the Capitals with their persistent pressure and overall speed, and earn numerous scoring opportunities by utilizing their quick and crisp passing style. Lucky for the Capitals they had Varlamov in goal, as he made several big saves on open scoring chances that were a result of the Capitals being out matched early by the explosive speed of the Penguins.
Finally, with about six minutes to go, the Capitals were able to get a good scoring opportunity that Steckel took advantage of as he was able to take the rebound Fleury put out right in front of the net, off of a Bradley centering shot, and slap pass the Penguins goalie to tie the game at 1 late in the first period.
The Capitals were able to take the momentum from their first goal and continue it on as they were able to take advantage of a 5 on 3 power play with 3 minutes left in the first period. It started when Gonchar, while in his defensive zone, shot the puck out of play giving the Capitals their first power play of the series. While on the power play, Ovechkin got physical as he took out Cooke while trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Cooke lost his composure and went after Ovechkin in retaliation which resulted in Cooke receiving a two minute minor for hooking, giving the Caps a two man advantage. Ovechkin was again in the forefront as he was the beneficiary of good puck movement by the Capitals as Backstrom fed Semin at the top of the zone who slapped a pass to Ovechkin on the right of the goal. Ovechkin was easily able to put this one away and give the Capitals a 2 to 1 lead with a few minutes to go in the first.
The Capitals were able to survive the domination the Penguins had over them for most of the first period, thanks in large part to the stellar play of Varlamov. This domination occurred while the teams were playing at even strength as the Capitals could not find an answer for the speed and pressure the Penguins consistently put on them which led to 10 first period giveaways for the Capitals compared to 1 by the Penguins. At the end of the period the Capitals were able to take advantage of two mental mistakes that put the Capitals on the power play and left them with a 2-1 lead after one. I would say this period was very reminiscent of game seven’s first period, one in which the Rangers controlled and dominated on the ice but not on the scoreboard. The Capitals had the lead after one but surely they will need to improve their defensive play and cut down their giveaways if they are going to be able to win this series.
The Capitals started the second period shorthanded and were able to easily kill the penalty as the Penguins never really got into an offensive rhythm. Immediately following the power play, the Capitals looked to take complete control of the game as they moved in on a 3 on 2 break with Ovechkin ending up with the puck on the left side. He launched a shot that beat Fleury over the right shoulder but unfortunately for Capitals, the puck hit squarely on the crossbar and ricocheted back up the ice. That would have given the Capitals control of the game early in the second with a two goal advantage.
The Capitals maintained the offensive advantage as they continued to pressure the Penguins in their defensive end, earning several more great scoring opportunities. But much like the Penguins in the first period, the Capitals were unable to finish on their great scoring chances. Fleury played a good second period continuously turning away the Capital shots.
The Capitals were able to dominate most of the exciting second period. Similarly to what the Penguins did in the first period, the Capitals used aggressive fore checking to keep the Penguins off balance and on the defensive for most of the period. The Capitals were not able to capitalize on the offensive pressure as they were not able to score on any of their 12 shots. Fluery and the Pittsburgh defense was able to turn away all of their scoring opportunities but I really like what they were able to accomplish in this period. They were able to aggressively attack both ends of the ice and they used crisp passing and great movement to create open shots around the net. Instead of settling for outside slap shots they aggressively attacked the net and really made Pittsburgh work defensively.
Unfortunately, the Capitals domination of the first period did not show on the scoreboard as the Penguins were able to even this game at 2 as Eaton sent in a shot from the blue line and the usually stellar Varlamov let an easy one slide under his glove side arm. He quickly regained his form as he made what could be the save of the playoffs. He reached back, after being beat on a pass stick side, and pulled Crosby’s shot out of the net keeping this game tied at 2. This was a huge save as the Capitals were able to stay even after dominating most of the second period. I think it could have been a huge negative on the psyche for the Capitals if they would have entered the third period trailing after dominating most of that second period.
The Capitals did not waste time in getting the lead back at the beginning of the third period. In the first two minutes of the final period, the Capitals took advantage of a defensive miscue as Backstrom and Fleischmann teamed up to create a 2 on 1 deep in the Penguins zone, leading to a Fleichmann goal assisted by Backstrom from Semin-the second assist of the game for each of those two.
The Capitals won this game 3 to 2 and there was one thing in common in each of those three goals. They were all a result of the Capital players aggressively attacking the goal and getting in position to receive a pass or capitalize on a rebound after Fleury was forced out of position because of great puck movement. I said after the Rangers series that I felt that the Capitals could not get away with the same type of performances that they had in the first round. I really felt that they needed to get more aggressive on offense and not settle for outside shots as well as cut down on the mistakes on the defensive end.
The first period was very reminiscent of round one as the Capitals were out played by the Penguins. In the opening period, the Capitals made a lot of mistakes and often gave the puck away without any pressure at all. After that first period, all that seemed to change. The Capitals took a more aggressive approach, took better care of the puck, and played much better defense aided by much improved fore checking. This greatly cut down on the opportunities that the Penguins had to score.
Of course the Capitals were able to win this game as they did round one, because of one man: Simeon Varlamov. Varlamov again came up huge for the Capitals as he was able to make several huge saves, bailing out the Capital defenders on the occasions that they allowed odd man rushes to the Penguins. Right now Varlamov looks like the best goalie in hockey and if the Capitals are able to advance it looks like it will be Varlamov who carries them on.