Thursday May 14th, 2009

Earlier this season, Washington winger Alexander Semin raised eyebrows when he posed a question to a Russian reporter. What's so special about Sidney Crosby?

If Semin didn't have his answer earlier in the series, he sure does now.

Crosby scored twice to raise his NHL-leading playoff goal total to 12, helping lead his Penguins to a 6-2 (BOX | RECAP) thrashing of Semin's shell-shocked Capitals in the seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Crosby's three-point night was part of a nearly flawless effort by a Pittsburgh team that took no penalties and turned over the puck just four times. But their execution, combined with Washington's defensive indifference, didn't make for much of a contest.

A blowout from very early in the second, this was the one element of this otherwise thrilling series that didn't deliver on the hype. It was a flaccid dessert after a spectacular six-course meal, maybe the worst delivery-to-anticipation ratio since The Phantom Menace. A laugher whose punch line was the desperation goaltending change that saw forgotten man Jose Theodore replace Simeon Varlamov early in the second period, and whose highlight for the dejected denizens of the Verizon Center was an errant pass that conked referee Dan O'Halloran upside the head.

But while it lacked in entertainment value, it was more than successful as a primer on the value of defensive zone dedication, and the dangers facing whichever team Pittsburgh meets in the Eastern Conference final.

For the Caps, who blew a 2-0 series lead, the devil wasn't in the details, but in the commitment. You want a lesson in commitment? Watch Evgeni Malkin blocking a shot in the second period . . . while Pittsburgh was nursing a 4-0 lead.

That really said it all about his team's focus and the advantage it gave them over an opponent either unwilling or unable to match it. Because for all the shock and awe that their offense can muster, Washington's forwards continued to play as though skill alone would be enough to carry the day. While Pittsburgh's forwards fully engaged in the battle, the Capitals kept looking for the easy way out . . . and they'll spend tomorrow cleaning out their lockers as a result.

There will be plenty of talk in the days ahead about injuries limiting some players, but the bottom line is that the Caps simply couldn't meet Pittsburgh's desire to compete. They had happy hands with the puck and were dysfunctional without it. That's why the regretfully yappy Semin remained goal-less for the series. Why Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Backstrom seemed content most shifts to scrounge for scraps on the perimeter. And why Mike Green is going to need one hell of an effort next spring to eliminate the odor of playoff bust that is going to stick with him all next season.

Even Alexander Ovechkin, who generated a couple of high-end scoring chances and did nothing to tarnish his reputation for thrills and chills, failed to match the intensity of Crosby and the rest of the Pens when forced to play without the puck

You watched their dubious effort and it's little wonder Varlamov melted down.

It's impossible to sugar coat his performance. He was bad. Varlamov may have been the main reason that Washington survived this long into the playoffs, but on a night when he needed to stand tall, his quick-drop style only made him smaller.

Varlamov was unlucky on Crosby's opening goal, a short-side tap-in on the power play at 12:36 of the first. But he was just plain out of position when fourth liner Craig Adams lit him up just eight seconds later, silencing the crowd and sucking the wind out of Washington's sails.

The game went off the rails early in the second when he was beaten on consecutive tests of his glove hand. Crosby set up Bill Guerin for a bomb just 28 seconds into the frame, and Kris Letang sent him to the bench with an identical blast just 1:44 later. These shots came from players under no pressure from the defense, but coming from long range, he had to come up with a save.

That's exactly what Marc-Andre Fleury did at the other end of the ice. He established Pittsburgh's mojo early, making a confident glove save on an Ovechkin breakaway less than three minutes in, then denying him again moments later when the knob of his stick fortuitously deflected a dangerously rising slapper.

Buoyed by those stops the Pens soon established their game, pressuring the biscuit in all three zones. Wasn't long before the Capitals started throwing away the puck . . . and the series.

Ovechkin, who'd matched Crosby through the first six games, finally got his moment late in the second, swiping the puck from Fleury behind the net before wheeling around and firing it into the empty cage.

But he returned the favor early in the third. Dangling carelessly at the Penguins blue line, Ovechkin had his pocket picked by Crosby who raced in alone before beating Theodore for Pittsburgh's final tally in the series.

It made for a fitting conclusion, a vivid reminder of Washington's recklessness and Pittsburgh's relentless puck pressure.

And it also served to answer Semin's question. You know, in case he was still wondering.

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