Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals battles Matt Cookeof the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game 1. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)
There are certain things you just don’t do in life.
You don’t ask a pregnant-looking woman when she’s due (trust me on this one). You don’t pick up a rattlesnake by the lips (either yours or the snake’s). You don’t quote old Jim Croce songs when writing a piece on certain things you just don’t do in life.
And you don’t give Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals a 5-on-3 man-advantage.
The Pittsburgh Penguins learned that lesson the hard way Saturday afternoon, losing Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal 3-2 to the Caps, a team that didn’t appear at all drained by their seven game first-round series comeback against the New York Rangers.
And in the first playoff battle between Penguins marquee player Sidney Crosby and his counterpart in Washington, the Pens’ star got the first laugh, but by sheer virtue of the final score, Ovechkin had the last one.
Crosby scored the first goal of Game 1, beating Simeon Varlamov four minutes into Saturday’s opening frame with a wrist shot past the Capitals goalie. David Steckel pulled Washington even a little less than a half-period later and three minutes after that, Ovechkin’s two-men-up power play marker – which came after a magnificent pass from Alexander Semin – gave the Caps their first lead of the series.
The Capitals increased the pressure for much of the second period, yet, thanks to some timely stops by Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens stayed in it long enough for Mark Eaton to tie it with a shot from the point that was inadvertently redirected past Varlamov.
If anybody wanted to fault the rookie goalie on either of Pittsburgh’s first two goals, they would also have to admit Varlamov made perhaps the save of the 2009 playoffs, absolutely robbing Crosby from netting his second of the game by reaching behind him and batting the puck off the goal-line with his stick late in the second.
Varlamov’s refusal to descend into self-doubt after either Penguins goal gave the Caps all the backbone they needed – and, more importantly, it allowed Tomas Fleischmann’s goal 1:46 into the third to stand up as the game-winner.
If the Pens have any hope of continuing to play after this series, Malkin, and not Crosby, is going to have to be the Pittsburgh star who steps up his game. Where Crosby was focused and physical Saturday, Malkin looked aimless and lackadaisical.
Pittsburgh also will need to sort out its power play in a hurry. Washington gave them five man advantages during Game 1, but the Penguins couldn’t convert on any of them.
Even if the Pens do find a way of firing on all cylinders, there’s some doubt after Game 1 it could be enough against this skilled, resilient Caps squad.
With the emergence of Varlamov, there’s a new Russian Five for the Penguins – and all remaining active NHL teams – to fear.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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