Saturday May 9th, 2009

It's no surprise that Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin was in the middle of the highlight of the night. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind of play that could help his Capitals tilt the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in their favor.

At least, not right away.

Struggling against ferocious checking and trying to find a way to impact the game, Ovechkin lined up Sergei Gonchar for a monster hit late in the first. But his timing was off. His legs spread as he adjusted to make contact and his right knee smashed into the left knee of Gonchar. The hit dropped the Pittsburgh defender to the ice writhing in pain, and left his availability for the rest of the series in doubt.

The extent of the damage remains to be determined, so it's premature to panic. After all, miraculous comebacks at this time of year are about as common as remixes of Flo Rida's Right Round.

But the chance that Gonchar might miss further action casts a pall over a 5-3 Pittsburgh win (BOX | RECAP) that knotted the Eastern Conference semi-final series at two games apiece. The Penguins are all too familiar with life without their top defender and the simple truth is that it is not conducive to winning hockey. It's no coincidence that their season turned around not just with the hiring of coach Dan Byslma, but with Gonchar's simultaneous return after spending the first 57 games of the season on IR.

Playing without him for any length of time puts the Penguins at a serious disadvantage. He eats the majority of blueline minutes, sets the physical tone on the back end, and is a constant threat in the offensive zone. His first period goal, a 45-foot slapper that he blew through the pads of a shaky Simeon Varlamov, was a reminder of how difficult it would be for Pittsburgh to account for his two-way presence.

But on this night at least, his teammates rallied to carry the load. Led by Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, the Pens bottled up the neutral zone, frustrating Washington's transition game and effectively eliminating Ovechkin, holding him to just two shots on the night.

As a group, the five remaining Penguin defenders were physical and sacrificial, blocking 12 shots and using their sticks and bodies to keep the passing lanes densely clogged. Few of Washington's 22 shots were particularly challenging. Good thing, too, because Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't exactly at the top of his form. Fleury allowed Nicklas Backstrom to score on the game's first shot just 34 seconds into the contest, and misjudged several other long-distance attempts that became far more exciting for the Mellon Arena fans than they had any right to be.

But as sketchy as he was, Fleury looked like Frankie Brimsek next to Varlamov.

After nearly stealing Game 3, the rookie looked the part of the kid trying on his big brother's clothes. After underplaying Gonchar's very stoppable shot, he simply waved at the Ruslan Fedotenko 50-footer that put the Pens up 3-1 after the first. And it's fair to say he effectively put the kibosh on any hopes for a rally when he allowed Max Talbot to beat him with another soft, long distance goal at 14:46 of the third. No matter how many good saves he made on the night -- and there were several -- Varlamov let his team down.

As bad as he was, this can probably be written off as the occasional tough night that every goalie has. What's more troubling for the Caps were the repeated defensive breakdowns that led to too many odd man rushes and too many second and third chances for Pittsburgh's forwards in-tight. The biggest offender? Again, it was Mike Green.

Though Bruce Boudreau was quick to defend him after the game, Green was a running liability. Sure, he looked nifty dancing through three Penguins before clanging a wrister off the post (the rebound was poked in by Chris Clark for Washington's second goal), but as in Game 3 he was out of position, or out of touch, on three of Pittsburgh's five goals. He failed to tie up Bill Guerin as he waited to deposit Sidney Crosby's rebound for Pittsburgh's second tally and his ill-timed pinches left John Erskine ripe for abuse on a two-on-one converted by Crosby and allowed Talbot to race unimpeded down the left side on their fifth goal.

Watching his freelancing misadventures, it's likely that anyone who had him penciled in for a spot on Team Canada was left franticly searching for an eraser.

After dropping a pair in Pittsburgh, the Capitals don't have much time to get their game back in order. Before they return to the Verizon Center for Saturday's pivotal contest, expect Boudreau to address their irresponsibility with the puck and the lack of discipline behind the play that led to several inexcusable calls. They'll also get a boost from returning home and the likelihood that Ovechkin and Varlamov will rediscover their mojo.

And if Gonchar can't go? That might be the biggest momentum shifter of all.

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