It was a game that brought to mind that classic scene from Spinal Tap. On a night when Sidney Crosby turned his amp up to 10, Alexander Ovechkin cranked his to 11.
Both players earned their first career playoff hat tricks, but Crosby's was wasted as the Ovechkin and the Caps skated off with a 4-3 win (RECAP | BOX).
Well, not entirely wasted. If the NHL needed a 60-minute reel to showcase the sport's two marquee talents, this was it. Sensing a series up for grabs, both players raised their games to match the stakes and all the hype that preceded it.
The result, according to Ovechkin, was one "sick game."
"Sick three goals by me and Crosby," he said. "It's unbelievable to see how fans react, how fans go crazy. The atmosphere right now, it's unbelievable in town. I'm afraid to go home right now."
At least he gets to go home with a 2-0 series lead ... and without the monkey that's been riding his back for much of the playoffs.
Hockey may be a team game, but he and Crosby turned the contest into their own personal version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." Crosby opened the scoring 6:38 into the first, poking in a rebound of a Bill Guerin point blast that Simeon Varlamov failed to handle. Ovechkin answered with a blistering one-timer set up by a Sergei Fedorov rush just 2:18 into the second.
The Pens regained the lead when another Guerin rebound pinballed off both Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green before Crosby picked it up in the crease and banged it home at 10:57. Dave Steckel piped up to tie it late in the period (more on him later) before Ovechkin took over.
Ovechkin netted his second of the game at 12:53 of the third, helping Washington capitalize just four seconds after Evgeni Malkin was sent to the box for a lazy tripping call. Backstrom and Green earned the assists, but Alexander Semin deserves credit for tying up (alright, interfering with) Matt Cooke, preventing the Pittsburgh winger from sliding over and taking out Ovechkin, who buried Green's pass with another sizzling one-timer.
A.O. followed that up with the eventual game-winner in classic Ovechkin style. Going into the zone one-on-one against Sergei Gonchar, he wiggled the defenseman into position as a partial screen before wristing a shot over Marc-Andre Fleury's glove.
Crosby's hat trick lacked the dazzle factor -- not one of his shots traveled more than five feet to beat Varlamov, including his four-whack attempt that culminated in Pittsburgh's final tally with 31 ticks left on the clock -- but that's a point Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma hopes the rest of the Penguins noticed. If not, he plans on making it clear before Game 3.
"If you look at our goals and where we scored them from, that's a pretty good formula for what we need to do more of," Bylsma said.
That's not the only thing the Penguins need more of. Crosby has scored four of the team's five goals in the series. If they expect better results when the battle shifts to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, someone else needs to step up. Bylsma said he'd be speaking to several players about what needs to change, but the pregnant pause that preceded his answer spoke volumes about his frustration with Malkin.
The NHL's leading scorer (sometimes hard to remember that fact given all the attention paid to Crosby and Ovechkin) was minus-2 on the night and generated few chances. He was better than in Game 1, particularly in the second period when he demonstrated some drive down low, but this was the fifth consecutive game in which he'd failed to find the back of the net . . . and it's impossible to forget it was his trip that led to the power play goal on which the game turned.
As Crosby noted afterwards, the margin between the two teams is fairly slim. "It's one play here or there. Both games were one-goal games. There's not a lot of room for error and we just need to make sure we get those big plays."
It's not entirely Malkin's fault that he's in this rut. He's been saddled with a pair of wingers in Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko who are accomplishing so little that they have Pens fans yearning for the return of the equally feckless Miro Satan.
Changes may be coming, but Satan's not the answer. Don't be surprised if Bylsma looks to get Malkin going by playing him regularly with Crosby in Game 3.
The Caps were downplaying their position after the game, saying they merely held serve after the win. Boudreau, who called Game 1 their worst effort of the playoffs, didn't seem all that thrilled with this win, either. Sure, there was more for him to like, including a consistent effort from his forwards, great success on the draw (62 percent) and the best performance yet in the 15-game NHL career of Varlamov. Defensively though, the Caps spent far too much time in their own zone and allowed the Penguins too many opportunities in tight. Green in particular had a rough night, coughing up the puck on a clearing attempt that led to Crosby's first goal, and failing to tie him up on the second.
But few outside of Boudreau will remember those gaffes for long. If you're going to screw up, best to do it on a night like this.
When the Pittsburgh staff puts together their post mortem on the loss, they'll spend time stewing over the team's inability to put its foot on Washington's throat when it had the chance.
Two minutes after Crosby's second goal had staked them to a 2-1 lead, the Penguins generated a pair of high-end chances off a two-on-four incursion. With all four Washington defenders swirling around him as he entered the zone, Max Talbot threaded a pass to Malkin, who challenged Varlamov with a sweeping wrister. When he failed to corral the rebound, Fedotenko pounced on the puck. But with half the net beckoning, he ganked it off the post. Two minutes later, Steckel tied the game.
That's now three leads they've failed to hold, let alone build on, in the first two games . . . and that's the kind of failing that will cost a team a series.
Jordan Staal was the big, third-line center that everyone assumed would step up his game for the series. Hasn't quite worked out that way. Staal, who was minus-2 on the night, isn't offering up the kind of smothering defensive effort he needs to compensate for his absence from the score sheet.
While Staal is struggling, Washington's Steckel has emerged as the unsung hero of the series. Steckel scored his second goal in as many games and drew the tripping penalty on Malkin that set the Caps up for the decisive power play marker. He's blocking shots and playing the kind of smart, physical hockey that the Pens so desperately need from Staal.
But it was Steckel's work in the circles that highlighted his value. He went 10-3 on the draw, including nine of 11 against Crosby. His proficiency was key to Washington's penalty kill, especially the opportunity midway through the third with the score still tied. Steckel powered his way to two defensive zone wins that led directly to clears and helped keep the game deadlocked. If not for the pair of hat tricks, he'd have earned a game star.
The Verizon Center crowd was chanting "MVP! MVP!" for Ovechkin late in the third, but if the game had been played on the road, the fans might have backing his viability as an Oscar candidate.
Fans in Washington (and a few other NHL ports of call) take delight in trashing Crosby as a diver, but they might want to drop those rocks while they're living in a glass house. After all, their hero isn't above reproach.
Ovechkin was taking a pass from Fedorov at center ice when he was grazed by Chris Kunitz. A.O. fell to the ice and, inexplicably, grabbed his face -- an odd decision considering that Kunitz had both hands on his stick mid-body and couldn't have made contact anywhere above the waist. Still, the flop drew the attention of referee Kelly Sutherland, who awarded the Caps with a power play on the strength of Ovechkin's performance.
Not surprising, then, that he tried it again just moments later. After bumping into Crosby's rear end, Oveckin executed a perfect pratfall, tumbling as if he'd had the rug pulled out from under him. There was no sale on that attempt, but it did serve as a good reminder that Sid's sturdy legs aren't the only ones capable of turning to jelly should an opportunity arise.