Wednesday May 13th, 2009

If the NHL was in the habit of taking requests, the phones would have been ringing off the hook this season for a Washington-Pittsburgh series that went seven games. Now that it's about to happen, the only people unhappy that this wildly entertaining struggle is going the distance may be the Penguins themselves.

Holding a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6, Sidney Crosby and Co. had their chance to wrap it up at home Monday night. Didn't work out that way, of course. David Steckel re-directed a Brooks Laich shot behind Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 6:22 of overtime to seal a 5-4 Caps win and knot the series at three games apiece.

So maybe heading back to Washington for Game 7 (7:08 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS) wasn't the way the Pens had things planned. Still, even they recognize that the greater good is being served when a series as thrilling and competitive as this one goes the distance. That's been one of the interesting side notes to this series. Rather than removing themselves from the action, the participants recognize -- and revel in -- the theater they're creating.

"There was a lot of [hype] before the series, and it's been everything it was made out to be," Crosby said.

"[It's] going to be pretty sick," offered Alexander Ovechkin.

"It's hard not to watch what's happening and watch it unfold," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Great players making big plays, teams answering and grabbing momentum. It's easy to see the quality of the game, the quality of the players and the quality of the storyline."

"I just wish it was for the final," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They're incredible, both of them. They play at a level that other people can't attain because they're that much more superior. I think if I wasn't behind the bench, I would enjoy watching them."

Those two, Ovechkin and Crosby, have certainly lived up to their billing, helping set the stage for what may be the most anticipated seventh game ever.

Blessed with wildly different skill sets, but an equal depth of passion, they've taken turns altering the course of shifts, periods and games. Now, with the series on the line, it's hard not to couch the outcome strictly as a test of one against the other. A battle of the brash, exuberant Russian against the reserved All-Canadian boy. A classic study in contrast.

Ovechkin has solidified his credentials as the sport's most entertaining player, scoring seven goals and adding six assists in the series. It's funny -- Pittsburgh blueliner Rob Scuderi has earned raves for the job he's done shutting down Ovechkin, and yet here's A.O. coming into the seventh game with a chance to tie or best Jari Kurri's all-time mark of 16 points in a series, set back in the 1985 Western Conference Final when his Oilers bested the Hawks.

Crosby has furthered his reputation as hockey's most gifted grinder, consistently winning puck battles along the boards and fighting for space down low. Only one of his six goals has been scored from more than 15 feet out and most have been within five. He'll never have the flair of Ovechkin, but his ability to gain position and his preternatural puck control has made his mix of skill and grit a worthy counterpoint.

It's hard to imagine either player could raise his game further. But with so much at stake, it seems inevitable that one of them will. And the one who does has the best chance to lead his team against the winner of Boston-Carolina for the Eastern Conference championship.

Of course, there'll be 19 other skaters dressed for each team, and any one of them could impact the outcome. Here are four more keys to winning Game 7:

1. The health of Sergei Gonchar

With their No. 1 defender sidelined by an injured right knee suffered early in Game 4 (courtesy of a borderline hit from Ovechkin), the Penguins dressed Alex Goligoski and Philippe Boucher and went seven deep on the blueline. Despite the loss Monday, the two-for-one combo worked out pretty well.

Now, Bylsma might have an interesting decision to make. Gonchar surprised everyone by skating in practice and his participation tonight is said to be a game-time decision. They're not floating this out there unless it's a near certainty that he'll play, so expect him in the lineup, at least in a limited role. If he can chip in on the power play, Gonchar could have a major impact on the outcome. Expect him to start as one of seven defenders, with Boucher staying in the lineup as a veteran presence that can play five-on-five and fill in on the power play if necessary.

2. The play of Marc-Andre Fleury

Despite the draw in the wins column, Fleury has been widely outplayed by Simeon Varlamov. The Capitals rookie has had a few meltdown moments of his own, but he's done a better job of giving his team the saves it needs at key moments. Hard to say the same for Fleury. Case in point: allowing two goals just 29 seconds apart less than a minute after Kris Letang had given the Pens a 3-2 lead in the third period of Game 6. That's not good enough.

Fleury might be tiring from the workload (which may explain that vulnerable glove hand), but Varlamov has proven to be a difference maker in the series. Fleury has yet to do the same

3. Washington's defense

It's not just that they're allowing too many shots (the Pens are averaging better than 40 per night), it's their inability to help Varlamov after he makes the initial stop. Penguin forwards are enjoying unfettered access to his crease and they're feasting on second and third opportunities. Controlling the area down low cuts Pittsburgh's offense off at the knees, but that requires a smart, physical commitment.

The Caps also have to make better reads when the play is in Pittsburgh's half of the ice. They love to activate their defensemen, and get them involved in the offense. When they've got that going, they're at their most effective ... and also their most vulnerable. It was Milan Jurcina's decision to go for a hit at the Pittsburgh blueline that created the two-on-one opportunity for Crosby and Bill Guerin early in Game 6, and Jurcina who was left to fish out the puck from behind Varlamov when it was over. Finding the balance between conservatism and opportunism will be critical.

4. Supporting cast

Even with all the attention focused on the two leading men, there's been the opportunity for others to grab the spotlight. Problem is, some potential impact players such as Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov are drifting in and out of the series, stealing their moments and then disappearing for stretches. Then there's Mike Green, who may be nursing an injury but who also seems to have lost his ability to think straight. Any one of them could dictate the course of Game 7 simply by living up to his gifts.

After six games, this is a series that has delivered fully on its promise. Three games have gone into overtime. Five were decided by a single goal. And 92 percent of the playing time has been spent tied or within one goal.

So of course it's Game 7. We wouldn't want it any other way.

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