Darren Eliot
Monday May 4th, 2009

With Sunday's road wins, the Hurricanes and Ducks tied their respective series at one apiece. The Blackhawks earned their split in Vancouver against the Canucks on Saturday night. Will the Penguins follow suit in Washington and head home with the series tied?

One would presume it's a good possibility. Game 1 was close and it turned on Capitals' goaltender Simeon Varlamov's diving desperation stop of Sidney Crosby with the score tied 2-2 late in the second period. Certainly that was a difference-making moment, yet Crosby did score the first goal of the series. In the battle of the stars, his marquee counterpart on the other side, Alex Ovechkin, matched him with a power play goal.

That first game saw Ovechkin's gang -- namely Alex Semin and Nick Backstrom -- outperform Crosby's crew of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. In fact, with all the focus on the top players, this series may actually come down to performances turned in by forwards 7-10 on each side. Staal centers the third unit for the Penguins, yet the Caps' fourth-line center, David Steckel, scored. If the Penguins earn a split with a win on Monday night in Washington, look for Staal, Tyler Kennedy or Matt Cooke to be in the mix.

After all, much was made of Ovechkin versus Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but that series turned in Game 5 when fourth-liner Matt Bradley scored shorthanded in the first period and followed it up with a second tally, at even strength, less than eight minutes later.

So, while Varlamov made the big save, Ovechkin scored, Semin and Backstrom each had two assists, and Tomas Fleischmann had the game-winner, Steckel's offensive contribution proved to be that little extra unanticipated boost that teams need in the playoffs.

It's the same every year: The game is tougher and tighter in the playoffs, which leads to increased reliance on role players. They get more ice time than during the regular season and the game suits their style of play a little better. Look at the playoffs this year already: Chad LaRose was a point-a-per-game performer in the first round against the Devils and he ranks second on the Hurricanes in playoff scoring overall. The Blackhawks' David Bolland scored twice on Saturday in Vancouver, and the most obvious example of a role player stepping into the spotlight was the Ducks' Todd Marchant netting the game-winner on Sunday in the third overtime.

So, if everything else is equal -- goaltending, star contributions and special teams -- the Penguins need a boost from below the top-six demarcation. That production must be consistent in this series in total because depth is a quiet, hidden strength of the Capitals. Bradley and Steckel, along with the likes of Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon, give them good size and grit beyond the team's stars.

Ovechkin and Crosby will garner the headlines, but buried on the back page is the real story: The team that gets more from their group of grinders will win this game . . . and the series.

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