By Allan Muir
May 12, 2009

Somewhere, Paul Kelly is smiling.

The executive director of the NHLPA raised eyebrows last week when he bemoaned the paucity of prolonged confrontations in the first round...from a strictly business perspective, of course.

No doubt, the second round has been more to his liking, with all four series extending to at least six games. And now, thanks to Dave Steckel's overtime heroics, the most compelling matchup in years is going to Game 7.

The focus of the Washington-Pittsburgh series has been on Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and they've done themselves, and the game, proud. The thought of the two of them raising their level with everything on the line Wednesday night should be enough to encourage any sports fan to sit down for the finale.

Still, it was fitting that it was supporting cast member Steckel who earned the hard hat tonight after he tipped Brooks Laich's half-boards wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury to seal Washington's 5-4 victory. Looking back, it's clear few players have experienced highs and lows like he has in this series.

Steckel emerged as the unsung hero of Washington's wins in Games 1 and 2, owning Crosby in the circle and using that big 6-5, 225 body to establish the Capitals' forecheck.

But he's been noticeable more for his miscues than his heroics over the past couple games. Steckel lost the defensive zone draw in overtime of Game 3 that led to Kris Letang's game winner. He gambled in the extra session of Game 5 and was caught up ice when Evgeni Malkin and Crosby converged on Simeon Varlamov for the deciding tally. And he missed a glorious scoring chance in the dying moments of the third period tonight when Nicklas Backstrom set him up on the doorstep.

He wrote another chapter in his nightmare diary when he slashed Mark Eaton's stick in half behind the Pittsburgh net early in the third. Nine seconds later, Letang pounced on a fat rebound of Alex Goligoski's point shot and wired a wrister past a poorly positioned Varlamov to give the Pens a 3-2 lead.

"When he took the penalty and they scored the goal, he just kept saying on the bench, 'Get one back for me,'" Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "He's so into the team and he thought he'd let them down and he ended up getting the winning goal. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

"He's been with me for five years now, I've said it before. He's a big-game guy."

The line of Steckel, Laich and Matt Bradley was reunited for the first time since Game 3, and it was Washington's most effective unit. They were physical and defensively responsible, but their key contribution was setting the tone in the offensive end. They consistently drove the net hard, making life miserable for Fleury and establishing the template for getting pucks behind him. It was Laich who planted himself in the crease, screening the netminder and deflecting Alexander Semin's shot for the tying goal less than a minute after Letang scored. And Steckel had another effective night in the circle, winning 10 of 14 draws...including the one that led to the OT winner.

After a night like that, it's safe to say the group will be given another chance to re-create that magic in Game 7.

And you can bet Kelly, along with every other hockey fan, is wishing this was a best-of-nine.

Though Boudreau called Game 5 his team's best effort of the series, it was the individual effort of Ovechkin (and, to a lesser extent, Backstrom) that kept that 4-3 contest close. No doubt frustrated by the lack of support, Ovechkin subtly called out his teammates after the loss, promising, ""Next game is going to be different." That it was.

And while it wasn't the sort of concerted effort that coaches want to see more of, Washington's ability to counter-punch, and the offensive awakening of a pair of slumbering weapons, led to a more satisfying outcome. Ovechkin failed to light the lamp himself but two of his three assists helped get Viktor Kozlov back in the groove with his first goals of the series.

"I said at the beginning, 'Geez, he doesn't have it,'" Boudreau said. "He was mishandling a couple pucks, but once he scored the first one we knew he had a little confidence. We all wish he'd shoot more because he has such great shot and him getting two goals, it's another guy you're really happy for. It was his due time."

Semin, who was strikingly ineffective through the first five games, had his most impactful performance. He initially was credited with Washington's third goal (eventually awarded to Laich) and ended up with two assists on the night. Though he failed to get off the schneid for the series, Semin was clearly more involved in the play. Even without lighting the lamp, his commitment to move in from the perimeter paid off in two drawn penalties.

Thomas Fleischmann also scored his first of the series, and while he was credited only with that one shot on goal, he was a nuisance around the Pittsburgh net.

Doesn't matter how often they fail, NHL players are never going to let go of their precious composite sticks. At some point though, they're going to recognize the value of keeping at least one wooden twig in their stick rack for those moments when they simply can't afford to risk being empty handed.

Say, on a defensive zone face-off in overtime.

It's easy to speculate a different result for this game had Max Talbot been wielding a sturdy slice of timber on the decisive draw. Instead, his untrusty piece of graphite carbon fiber snapped in the circle, helping Steckel win possession. It also left Talbot unable to tie him up, giving Steckel a free path to the net, where he was able to get position and tip the winner past Fleury.

No doubt that fancy stick helped make Talbot the 12-goal man he was this season, but a painful break like that should leave him, and others, questioning their full-time commitment to the least reliable piece of equipment in sports.

Varlamov is now 4-0 when facing elimination, but the Caps have to be concerned about a goals-against average that's creeping higher (it's close to four over the last four games). Some of the blame falls on his defense -- the Pens are averaging 40 shots per game after Washington gave up just 24 per game to the Rangers in the first round -- and the quality of the chances he's facing are becoming more dangerous as Pittsburgh's forwards have recognized they can crash his crease with impunity.

He was sensational in the first, bailing out his defense on a handful of head-shaking turnovers that helped the Pens build an 18-5 shots advantage. As the game wore on, though, he began to overplay the puck. He was hopelessly out of position on Letang's goal and was scrambling on several other chances. Might just have been the effects of playing four games in six nights or maybe it's the sheer volume of shots he's facing, but it's hard to deny that he looks like a tired keeper heading into the most important contest of his young career. At this rate, the Caps better count on scoring at least four if they hope to win Game 7.

Donald Brashear was eligible to return after serving his six-game suspension but was scratched.

Coming into this game, Pittsburgh had been 7-1 against Washington in playoff overtime games. Fleury had been 5-0 in his career in playoff OT.It was reported that the three lead changes were the most in any playoff game in three years...until there were five changes in the Chicago's 7-5 win over Vancouver later in the evening.

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