Thursday May 7th, 2009

Challenge issued. Challenge answered.

If anyone had doubts about Evgeni Malkin's ability to carry his share of the load in Pittsburgh's second-round series against Washington, they were erased by a memorable performance on Wednesday night.

It was Kris Letang's point shot that deflected off Shaone Morrisonn and over Simeon Varlamov's shoulder at 11:23 of overtime that sealed Pittsburgh's 3-2 win in Game 3. But it was the grim determination of Malkin that got them to that point.

And for a Penguins team that was in danger of falling behind 3-0 in the series, his redemption came not a moment too soon.

Not that he was brutal in the first two contests, but it's hard not to notice when the NHL's points leader is virtually absent from the score sheet. Malkin did have a pair of assists in the first two contests, but a minus-three rating on top of a five-game goalless streak had him wearing the horns as the series' most obvious underachiever.

With Sidney Crosby scoring four of Pittsburgh five goals, the pressure was on Malkin to take some of the pressure. And brother, did he. This wasn't just a return to form. This was a statement, an exclamatory reminder that Alex Ovechkin wasn't the only Hart Trophy candidate in the series.

It didn't start out well. He looked out of sync early, and was clearly frustrated after being thrown out of a couple of early faceoffs. But boosted by chants of "MVP! MVP!" from the Mellon Arena crowd, Malkin helped stall Washington's early pressure, picking up a loose puck and forcing Varlamov to make the first of several remarkable saves off his partial breakaway.

After that, you could sense it was just a matter of time before his streak was over. Malkin grew more confident as the game progressed, using his size to hold off defenders or his stickhandling to dance around them. And time and again, he led the charge to the net, testing Varlamov and challenging his mates to do the same.

"His play pretty much speaks for itself," coach Dan Byslma said. "He was at another level. He was dominant with the puck. He had the one goal, which was fantastic, but he had other opportunities. It was great to see him respond [to the challenge]."

Bylsma noticed how hard he was competing for the puck, throwing him out there for nearly 30 minutes on the night, a game high. He had nine shots in the game, but it was Malkin's puck possession that ultimately led to his goal. He blew by Alexander Semin as he danced through the offensive zone, forcing the flat-footed winger to hook him at 14:10 of the third. Thirty-nine seconds later, Malkin picked up the puck along the boards, cut through the middle and launched a wrister that sailed over Varlamov's shoulder for the go-ahead goal.

He had three chances of his own to end the game in OT, but the fact that he didn't took nothing away from Malkin's heroics. This was a special game from a special player. A couple more like it and the Pens might actually get out of this series alive.

In his postgame comments, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau expressed his frustration. Not so much with the seven penalties his team took, but with the two that were assessed to the Penguins.

"I hope I never hear them complain about penalties again ... the picks and everything else. I think we might have deserved the penalties, but they sure as hell deserved a few more than they got."

The truth of it was that the Caps were on their heels most of the night. Pittsburgh earned those power plays by virtue of their aggressive forecheck and a willingness to go hard to the net.

Eventually, the pressure just wore the Caps down.

"I think four you can get away with and when we got the fifth one, I thought, 'OK, we're playing with fire'," Boudreau said. "And when we got the sixth one, I said, 'Now we're in the danger zone.' And we were."

While Boudreau was looking for more fouls to be called on Pittsburgh, his team did little to draw them. Outside of the first 10 minutes, the Caps had few bursts of sustained pressure. The Pens played them tough but fair, and managed to maintain their discipline throughout the contest ... at least until Pascal Dupuis committed that brutal interference penalty well behind the play. Nicklas Backstrom tied the game on that late chance, and Washington ended up 1-2 on the night.

Even in a losing effort, there's no denying that Varlamov gave the Capitals the sort of goaltending that can carry a team all the way to the Cup.

"He was outstanding," Boudreau said after the game. "When you get a goaltending effort like that, you have to win because they don't come around every day."

Actually, it's looking like it might not be too much to ask for a performance like that on a nightly basis. Despite a relentless assault on his crease, Varlamov stopped 39 of 42 shots on the night, and was blameless on all three that eluded him.

He kept his struggling mates afloat by shutting down six partial breakaways (stopping Malkin twice and Crosby once), and made a couple of acrobatic saves -- including a dazzler on Dupuis in the second that will be all over the highlight reels. But it was his controlled presence in the face of constant incursions and flurries of activity that again raised the bar of expectations.

Too soon to talk Conn Smythe? No doubt ... but Varlamov has established himself as the leading contender in the early going.

Tough to follow up a performance like the one he authored in Game 2, but don't let the two-point effort fool you. Ovechkin was effectively held in check most of the night.

With Marc-André Fleury flopping vainly to get back into the net, Ovechkin demonstrated his league-leading sense of opportunism, pouncing on a fortuitous bounce off the end boards for the opening tally just 1:23 into the game. But he, like the rest of the Caps, failed to match the intensity of the Penguins the rest of the way. He had four more shots on the night, but none posed particularly stout challenges for Fleury.

Sensing the lack of energy, Bourdreau switched up his lines, moving Ovechkin onto a unit with Backstrom and Alexander Semin. But that did little to raise his level of impact. After that first goal, he was pretty much invisible until he initiated a late-third period hit on Brooks Orpik ... and he may have gotten the worst of that collision.

Letang would have had a tough time scoring the winner from the press box. That's where he was headed after suffering an undisclosed upper body injury as a result of a clean Mike Green hit late in Game 2. A game-time decision saw him added to the lineup. "I'm glad I got the chance to play," he said.

With this win, Fleury is now 4-0 for his career in playoff overtime games.

Dave Steckel owned Crosby in the circle in Game 2 and again in Game 3, going 9-3 against Pittsburgh's superstar. Problem was, all three of those losses came in Washington's zone, including the decisive faceoff that Crosby won to set up Letang's winner.

As limited as he is skill-wise, this was one of those games where Donald Brashear might have come in handy. The Caps enforcer, currently sitting out a six-game suspension earned during the first round, might have been able to juice up his teammates with some physical play. They sure needed someone to shake them out of the stupor that lasted most of the contest.

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