Kris Letang of the Penguins celebrates his game-winning goal with teammates. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Heading into Game 3, the questions surrounding Pittsburgh’s ability to make a series of it were threefold: Could Washington goalie Simeon Varlamov continue his stellar play; could Evgeni Malkin and his mates get on track and take some of the offensive heat off Sidney Crosby; and would the Pens be able to build off the energy of a home crowd?
The latter was made largely moot early by a bad-hop, Alex Ovechkin goal courtesy of a Mike Green dump-in off the end boards that bounced straight out in front of the Penguins goal while netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was out to lunch behind the net.
(And, why in the world the Mellon Arena staff had the fans decked-out in white with the Pens wearing their home black sweaters, I’ll never figure out. If not for the Penguins logo at center ice, a newbie to the broadcast would have thought the white-sweater wearing Caps were the home team. Someone was asleep at the switch on that one.)
For his part, Malkin looked to be battling the ups-and-downs of his slump; his body language to begin the game — even when merely being thrown out of the faceoff circle early on — was poor at best, but he did have better energy than at any time in his past four post-season contests and became more and more dominant as they game went on.
Sloppy Pittsburgh passing and a trap-ish defensive strategy by the Capitals kept the Pens bogged-down in the neutral zone through much of the first period. But the second period began much better for the home team.
For just the second time all series (and the first in 116:35 of game play), a Penguin other than Crosby scored when Ruslan Fedotenko potted a gift about 10 minutes into the second off a broken 2-on-1 to tie the game at one.
Fedotenko’s goal brought the Pens to life. They outshot Washington 15-4 in the period and out-hit the Caps by about a 2-1 count, dominating the second period along the way and changing the tide of the game. If not for Varlamov, the score would have been much different. But dominating a period only means so much when the score is tied 1-1 heading into the third period of a must-win game.
The ice continued to tilt towards the Washington goal in the third period, with Pittsburgh again winning the shooting derby, this time 11-6. And Malkin took over, becoming the best player on the ice, if a little one-man showy; repeatedly dangling, drawing a penalty and scoring a beauty power play goal on a wrister from the high slot with five minutes to play.
But, once again, excitement in the Igloo was dampened, this time by a late power play marker off the stick of Nicklas Backstrom — his first goal of the post-season — with less than two minutes to play, sending the game to overtime.
Pittsburgh’s frenetic, dominating play continued and a little more than 11 minutes into the extra frame, Kris Letang scored with a slapper from the point off a faceoff win by Crosby, winning the game and allowing the Pens and their fans to let out a huge sigh of relief.
In the end, the three questions surrounding the game when it began were answered: Yes. Yes. And yes.
Varlamov played as well as could be asked of him, stopping 39 of 42 shots. Malkin, Fedotenko and Letang all scored — with Crosby adding helpers on two of the three Pittsburgh goals. And the Mellon Arena crowd, despite the fashion faux pas, was raucous most of the evening — with a big assist going to the Mellon Arena DJ (more on that in the next print issue of THN).
The series continues Friday at 7 p.m. EST in Pittsburgh. The same questions will again be front and center when Game 4 begins, with a further one added to the troika: Can the Caps bounce back after what was surely their worst performance since early in Round 1 versus the Rangers? The Penguins will be hoping for a big “No” on that one.
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