Monday May 11th, 2009

After his team's Game 5 loss (RECAP | BOX) to Pittsburgh on Saturday, Alexander Ovechkin stuck his neck -- and his words -- into the public firing line by warning the Penguins: "Next game is going to be different. It's not over yet. If somebody thinks it's over, it's not over. We're going to come back here again. Game 7."

Not quite a Joe Namath guarantee or a Mark Messier "we will win," but them's fightin' words, for sure. And the way Ovechkin barrels through defenses without hesitation, or revs his sports cars without checking the speedometer, you might see these words as instinctive, impetuous blather.

But here's betting that the words are more carefully chosen than they'd appear, and were designed more for his teammates than anyone else. In the same way that Detroit GM Ken Holland fired up his troops before the playoffs by talking about the unprecedented array of talent on his roster, Ovechkin -- who has scored seven of Washington's 15 goals in the series -- is reminding his mates of how good they can be when they click.

There was a day between games with plenty of time for his teammates to read papers or field questions about his guarantee. (Read: "I believe in all of you, but I'm counting on you to help me out here, guys.") Washington is familiar with comebacks, having trailed the Rangers 3-1 in the first round before rallying. So far, the Caps have done a good deal of damage to themselves, contributing to both of the Penguins' overtime goals. Defenseman Tom Poti stuffed one into his own net and Shaone Morrisonn deflected another one past his goaltender in OT defeats.

Here's a bet that once the Caps, who trail the Pens 3-2 in the series, are done, whether it happens in this round or later, we may learn about some upper-body, lower-body or full-body ailment that has been afflicting defenseman Mike Green. The Norris Trophy candidate didn't look like himself in the Rangers series and has been strikingly ineffective against the Penguins. Even trailing Pittsburgh forwards are giving him space to join the rush because it seems they no longer fear his deadly presence as a fourth man.

Green isn't the only M.I.A. player in what has been the most compelling series of the postseason. Washington's Alexander Semin and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (great in Game 3) have had invisible moments and are needed in Game 6.

The Caps may need another John Druce, a guy who doesn't do much during the regular season, but finds his game in May. Unfortunately for Washington, the guy wearing that hat seems to be Pittsburgh's Ruslan Fedotenko, who has a goal in each of the last three contests.

Fedotenko had a mediocre regular season, in which he scored 16 goals and missed 15 games because he hurt his hand in a fight, but this emergence is nothing new. The Ukrainian forward scored 12 goals during Tampa Bay's playoff run in 2004, including both in the 2-1 victory against Calgary in the clincher. Even during a March slump in which Fedotenko went nine games without a goal, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero was assuring everyone that his offseason free agent would break through. He is paying dividends now when it counts.

How many times have we seen this script played out between these two teams: Washington jumps in front, seemingly assumes control of the series against Pittsburgh and then tanks. The Penguins storm back, overwhelm the Capitals and advance to the next round, thanks to a great performance from a superstar. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby or Malkin -- somebody always sinks the Caps.

In all, the Penguins have beaten the Capitals in six of the seven series they've played, but three of those were especially devastating. In 1992 and 1995, Washington took 3-1 series leads against Pittsburgh only to lose the last three. In 1996, the Caps won the first two, but then dropped the next four. First strikes haven't meant much in this series, either. Game 5 marked the first contest in which the team that scored first actually went on to win the game, so stay in your seats.

1. Under the heading of "if you can't beat them, eliminate them," the health of the Bruins' defensemen for the sixth game of their series against Carolina may be in question after the Hurricanes tried to chop them down one-by-one on Sunday (RECAP | BOX). Zdeno Chara was hacked on the back of the leg by Jussi Jokinen toward the end of the second period and needed medical attention before returning in the third. Aaron Ward suffered a broken facial bone after he was punched by Scott Walker with 2:47 to go in the third period. Boston's stifling defense held Carolina to 19 shots against goaltender Tim Thomas on Sunday, but many of the Canes' 19 penalties -- 11 of which came in the third period -- were of the chippy, message-sending variety. Based on how much swagger the Bruins defense has in its next road game, we'll know how that message was received.

2. Send some of the Hurricanes' orneriness to Anaheim, because the Ducks need to be awakened. How does a team playing the fifth game of a tied playoff series come out as pancake-flat as Anaheim did Sunday (RECAP | BOX)? It was as if the Ducks, who played with such gusto in their opening-round series against the Sharks and then kept the momentum going for three-and-a-half games against Detroit, were prepared less for battle and more for Mother's Day brunch.

Ducks coach Randy Carlyle seemed as stunned as anyone after the game. "We have to be emotionally involved in the game right from the drop of the puck," he said. Perhaps the Ducks are finally showing their age (Chris Pronger, Teemu Selanne, both Niedermayers) and health (Ryan Getzlaf) against the deeper, faster Red Wings.

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