Sunday May 10th, 2009

Random observations after Pittsburgh's thrilling 4-3 overtime win over Washington in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series... It might seem odd to say that a game characterized by thrilling bursts of run-and-gun hockey was decided by defense, but that's exactly what happened. And that's the critical take-home for the Capitals if they hope to bring the series back to Washington for Game 7. Despite the odd breakdown, Pittsburgh has turned around a series it once trailed two games to none by committing to the belief that defense is the responsibility of all five skaters on the ice. The 42 shots allowed by Washington shows how far removed it is from buying into that concept.

Good example: Pittsburgh's third goal was scored by Matt Cooke after Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal each had stepped up to test Simeon Varlamov in close. Not one of them, mind you, ended up on his backside for having enjoyed the privilege. Three minutes later, the Caps were swirling in Pittsburgh's zone. Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich each converged on the net, trying to pounce on a rebound of a Laich shot. They were met there by all five Penguins skaters, and it was just a moment before Miro Satan emerged with the puck and had Pittsburgh in transition. That was the game in microcosm. When the Caps managed to generate pressure in the Pittsburgh zone, the Pens united to make life easy on Marc-Andre Fleury. They blocked shots (24 tonight), muddied the passing lanes and were quick to mop up any of Fleury's spills. And when the Pens were in control in Washington's zone? Too often, the Caps' wingers were up high, waiting for the breakout, leaving the Pens to take repeated whacks at Varlamov. The Caps are guilty of taking the easy way out. Unless they address that, it's going to cost them the series.

For the second time in the series, the Penguins were the beneficiaries of a bounce off a Washington defender in overtime.

As Evgeni Malkin drove the net in the dying seconds of a power play, he spotted Sidney Crosby streaking down the left side. But as he attempted to set up his teammate for an easy one-timer into the open side, Malkin's pass was deflected by a diving Tom Poti behind Varlamov.

Lucky? Sure. But at this time of year, you make your own luck. Go to the net and good things happen.

Of course, the break just as easily could have gone the other way. Malkin was out there for the duration of the power play and tired legs have a way of translating into goals against. All things considered, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was willing to overlook the long stay.

"[Malkin] was at the end of a two-minute shift, and he still had enough juice to drive to the net," Bylsma said. "He certainly got a favorable bounce, but it doesn't happen if he's not moving his feet and driving to the net. That's what he does. He's a beast when he does that, and we got a good result."

Malkin wasn't quite the unstoppable force that he was in Game 3, but he was more of a presence than in Game 4, and it was the support that he and Jordan Staal (who scored his first of the playoffs) and Matt Cooke gave to the sublime Crosby that gave Pittsburgh the offensive depth that Washington couldn't match.

When the result was on the line, Malkin turned it up. Just as in Game 3, it was his aggressive play that drew the penalty that led to his power play goal

No doubt Caps fans are moaning about the lack of a call on Philippe Boucher when the Pittsburgh defender dumped Boyd Gordon seconds before the winning goal was counted.

Sure, it happened 20 feet from the puck. But it was the right decision. Truth is, the refs had put the whistle away on that kind of activity for the whole game and good for them. People always say, "Let 'em play," and that's exactly what they did.

What those rocking the red really should be ticked about is that Gordon and Dave Steckel were in the Pittsburgh zone in the first place.

While killing the penalty, Steckel swiped the puck from a Penguin in the neutral zone and carried it into the Pittsburgh zone. In regulation time, that's the right decision. You make the most of the space you're given, and he had a bit to work with. But in overtime of a playoff game, you've got to dress your thinking in bubble wrap and play it safe. Dump the puck into the zone and roll back. Instead, both forwards went in on the forecheck and in taking that chance both were caught deep when the Pens broke out. And instead of hanging back in the neutral zone where they could have gunked up Pittsburgh's transition, they had a nice view of Malkin's rear end as he barreled toward the net for the deciding goal.

No one's pointing fingers at Varlamov for the overtime winner. But there are probably a few sideways glances. The kid who looked impregnable over the past couple weeks now appears to have sprung a few leaks.

Of the nine goals he's allowed in the last two games, six were playable. Not easy stops, but the kind he was making earlier in his charmed run. And those pucks that he's fishing out of the net now are what have changed the complexion of this series.

Is he tiring? Feeling the pressure? Tough to say. What is obvious is that Pittsburgh's comfortable testing his glove hand (Ruslan Fedotenko, who picked up his fourth of the postseason less than a minute into the third, is feasting on it). But the bigger issue is Varlamov's lack of rebound control. Too many times, initial shots are bouncing off him directly into dangerous areas around the net. When that happens, he gets moving around too much trying to cover his mistake, and that pulls him out of position; see Cooke's critical third period goal that came after Varlamov was forced to make three stops.

If it's not physically tiring, it has to be mentally exhausting. At this point, he can't count on his teammates to be there to either clear out lurking Penguins or clean up his refuse. Shame on them for that. But if he doesn't do a better job of controlling his leftovers, the Caps are coming home to clean out their lockers, not play a Game 7.

Tells you all you need to know about Bruce Boudreau's frustration with his defense corps that Sergei Fedorov was dropped back for some time on the blueline. He was a mixed bag on the night. Fedorov got the play started late in the third to set up the tying goal, but was also guilty of the trip on Malkin in OT (though Milan Jurcina was fingered for the infraction) and was on the kill late when Malkin scored the winner. Even in light of that, he's probably one of their best options at the position for Game 6, along with Poti.

Haven't mentioned Alexander Ovechkin's night yet because, honestly, what's left to say? As good as Crosby has been, Ovechkin's is playing as though he feels like he needs to win every game by himself. Tonight, it was two goals and an assist. The series would be over without him.

Boudreau said much the same after the game. "I could talk until the frigging cows come home about him. He plays good all the time. He's the MVP. There's got to be something else to talk about."

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