Saturday, May 02, 2009

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1: Caps 3 - Penguins 2

Can you say his name NOW?!

That’s “Var-LA-mov”…”V,” as in “Victory”…as in “Vandalism”… as in “Very sweet stick save.”

OK, so Crosby got a goal. He does that. Ovechkin got one, too. But if you had “Semyon Varlamov” before the game as the guy who would save the Caps’ bacon in Game 1, then buy a lottery ticket. The rookie goalie, who was supposed to face an offense that was to the New York Rangers what an F-16 fighter is to a paper airplane, faced that offense and faced them down, for one game at least.

But the whole game comes down to what happened at 17:59 of the second period and the score tied, 2-2. Sidney Crosby skated through the neutral zone with Chris Kunitz -- Mike Green and Tom Poti back for the Caps. At the Caps’ line, Crosby left the puck for Kunitz cutting behind him. Kunitz curled in as Crosby darted for the net. Kunitz laid a pass right onto Crosby’s tape for what looked like a tap-in for what would have been the tying goal. But Semyon Varlamov planted his left skate, pushed off and dove at the shot Crosby took, getting the paddle of his stick on the puck just as it reached the goal line. The puck never crossed, though, as Varlamov swept it out so that Mike Green could move it out of danger.

If the Penguins scored there, the outcome – given the record of teams holding a lead at the second intermission so far in the playoffs – is probably very different. It was hardly Varlamov’s only ten-bell save, though. In stopping 34 of 36 shots on the afternoon, there was the puck that hit a skate on a Penguin power play and ended up right on the blade of Mark Eaton’s stick. Varlamov came out and took away any space Eaton had to shoot at, swallowing the shot in his midsection with 11:26 left in the second. There was the two-on-one for Pittsburgh – Ruslan Fedotenko and Petr Sykora – on which Varlamov darted across to foil Sykora’s attempt of a pass from Fedotenko with 3:55 left in the second. There was Evgeni Malkin winding his way through the neutral zone and down the right wing boards, finding Fedotenko cutting to the net for a back door play, but Varlamov was there one more time to dart across the crease and foil Fedotenko as the clock was ticking toward four minutes to play in the third.

There wasn’t any doubt, Varlamov was the game’s first star.

Other stuff…

- Even the “save of the playoffs, as it was described on the NBC broadcast, is not always just the goalie. Look at the replay. Even though Tom Poti was beaten to the net by Sidney Crosby, Poti got enough of Crosby with his stick to perhaps throw off Crosby’s shot. If Poti is not there, Crosby might have just buried that shot.

- It’s only one game, but it was not an auspicious start for Evgeni Malkin. He had an assist (on the Mark Eaton goal that, as Pierre McGuire put it, “had a lot of odor on it” for the way Varlamov whiffed on the attempted glove save) but was otherwise unheard from. Three shot attempts (two on goal), and not much fire in his game. He even lost both draws he took against Alex Ovechkin.

- Alright…that shot resulting in the Eaton goal might have been tipped by Boyd Gordon before it eluded Varlamov's glove.

- OK, it worked…but if that slap pass from Alexander Semin to Alex Ovechkin for the 5-on-3 power play goal didn’t work, folks would be saying a lot of the same things this evening that they were saying last spring when Ovechkin passed up a shot to try to feed Sergei Fedorov late in Game 7 against the Flyers.

- The Caps, who were abused in the faceoff circle to the tune of 28-14 in the first two periods, were 14 of 18 in the third period, including winning the last four draws taken in the last 2:06 of the game.

- What is it with Matt Bradley and that corner down by Section 103? He skates down there, throws a puck at Henrik Lundqvist…it goes in. This afternoon, he takes a feed from Brooks Laich, glides into the same corner, throws the puck in front, and David Steckel bangs it home. It’ll be renamed, “The Bradley Corner,” if this keeps up.

- 22 giveaways…not good. They had ten in the first period and six in the first six-plus minutes.

- We thought Nicklas Backstrom would be a key in terms of his playmaking. He started the play on the Ovechkin power play, and it was his pass to Tomas Fleischmann for the game-winner. And there are folks who probably weren’t even aware that he was out there.

- Even though the Caps were hammered on faceoffs in the first two periods and lost that battle for the game, 32-28, they were 11 of 18 in the defensive zone. David Steckel – this afternoon’s winner of the hard hat – won six of eight, mostly at the expense of Sidney Crosby, against whom he was five for six.

- John Erskine…eight hits, a third of the Caps’ total.

- But it was Erskine who was caught at the red line, unable to keep Bill Guerin from feeding Crosby speeding toward the Caps’ end for what would become the game’s first goal.

- The Penguins had five power plays…they had six power play shots. Five of them came from defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. Tom Poti and Mike Green had as many shots on the Penguin power play (one apiece) as did Evgeni Malkin (one). If the Penguins keep that up, they’ll find it difficult to get a power play goal in this series.

- Marc-Andre Fleury stops a lot of pucks…he also gives up a lot of rebounds. If the Caps could convert a third of what were presented to them this afternoon, this game would have been over at the second intermission.

- The education of a defenseman… last year, Mike Green averaged 0:20 in shorthanded ice time a game. This year, in the regular season, he averaged 2:28. He’s averaging 2:30 in the playoffs. Today, he had 4:22.

Once again, we serve to remind that it’s “first to four,” not “first to one.” And this makes seven of eight times in Caps-Pens history that the Caps have won Game 1. There will be bumps along the way, but the Caps got the games they needed out of the players who needed to have them – a goal by Ovechkin, a pair of assists by Backstrom, more energetic play from Mike Green, and a great performance from Varlamov.

Now, they have to be better, because Pittsburgh will be. This one, though…. Great job, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals, Caps vs. Penguins...Game 1

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We are live from Peerless Central on this, the morning of Game 1 of the greatest playoff series in the history of earth.

Romans versus Carthaginians in the Punic Wars? Pfft…amateurs

The Hundred Years War? Yeah…right.

The Civil War?... intramural pansy crap.

This is serious! Ovechkin versus Crosby, Malkin versus Semin, Fleury versus Varlamov, Boudreau versus Bylsma, Primanti’s versus Ben’s Chili Bowl. It doesn’t get any bigger.

“Calm down, cuz…it’s just a game.”

Just… a… game? What are you, a Communist? Or worse, a basketball fan?

“No, I’m just sayin’… “


“Feerless, I’m sceered…he’s talkin’ stoopid.”

“Don’t worry, that’s just the caffeine talking after he was up writing that preview last night. You OK, cousin?”

Sure, it’s just these early games. Pronosticatin’ is hard, ya know? So what are you boys looking for today?


The game, Cheerless…the game…”

“Oh, shoot, I don’t know…I just look at the scoreboard to figure out who’s doing what.”

You’re nothing if not simple. Feerless?

“It’s like you said in the first round – ‘first to four.’ If the Caps win, it’s only one game on the way to four. If they lose, it’s not the end of the world.”

You guys aren’t much for analysis, are you?

“It’s like you said, cuz, it’s early…

OK, well, about this game… the early comparisons here are, of course, the Ovechkin versus Crosby angle. It’s today’s version of “Bird versus Magic,” the legendary rivalry that started when Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson met in a college championship final and carried their rivalry into the NBA, where they met 17 times in the regular season over their respective careers and in the playoffs three times in the finals.

If you’re looking to that short-pants rivalry for clues about the Ovechkin-Crosby duel, we’ll give you some things to think about.

If you’re looking for similarities in persona, you’ll find them here. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, he of the electric smile and outgoing personality, the player who could bring fans out of their seats with rushes up the court, the personality that was made for the marketing folks in the NBA in the 1980’s could be said to have his stylistic descendant in the person of Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin, with his gap-toothed grin, fractured English, devil-may-care attitude, a player who can bring fans out of their seats every time he takes the puck out of his zone on a rush up the ice, is a player made for the marketing folks in the NHL in the post-lockout era of hockey.

Larry Bird, the reticent, reserved player of elite skill in all aspects of the game, a player who can beat you with sheer technical excellence or the perfectly timed display of flash, a player who could take his team on his back and carry them as far as they need to go, was the perfect foil for a player such as Earvin Johnson.

Sidney Crosby, who gives the appearance of measuring his behavior and calculating the effect of his quotes with each appearance he makes in the media or in interviews, who is perhaps the most technically complete player to step onto an NHL ice sheet, certainly since Wayne Gretzky, who can by sheer force of will and skill dominate an opponent and carry his team on his shoulders, is the perfect foil for the outsized personality and talent of a player such as Alex Ovechkin.

If you’re looking at the head-to-head, Caps fans will be hoping the analogy of Ovechkin-Crosby carries over to Johnson-Bird. To date, Sidney Crosby has had the upper hand in the regular season meetings between the teams…

This year, however, Ovechkin evened up the statistical profile. His Caps went 3-0-1 against the Penguins, and he went 4-2-6, +3, compared to Crosby’s 1-6-7, -5 in four games.

It isn’t unlike the Johnson-Bird regular season history in which Bird enjoyed a considerable statistical advantage over their respective careers. Bird averaged 23.0 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 6.5 assists a game in 17 regular season games played between the Celtics and Lakers in their careers. Johnson averaged 20.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 12.2 assists in those 17 head-to-head matchups. The Lakers won 10 of 17 of those head-to-head games.

And things didn’t change – statistically – in the playoffs between Johnson and Bird. Bird averaged 25.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 19 career playoff games against Johnson. Magic averaged 20.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 13.5 assists in those games. But in the end, Johnson’s team won 11 of 19 playoff games and two of three series. Caps fans will be anxious to have that scenario play out here.

But carrying that analogy even further, the “magic” of Ovechkin isn’t enough, any more than Johnson’s “magic” was enough for the Lakers. Ovechkin doesn’t have a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sort on his team, but there are other players who are faint echoes of the sort of player who provided the kind of support the Lakers had to have to beat Bird and his Celtics.

In Sergei Fedorov, a wily veteran who can do it on offense or defense, a smart player of no small amount of skill, a player who can succeed with grit or style, there is a faint resemblance to a player such as James Worthy.

In Brooks Laich, a player who gets his nose dirty, who bangs in the timely goal, who hustles all over the ice, there is the distant echo of a Kurt Rambis.

In Alexander Semin, a player who is as pure an offensive talent as there is on the Caps, a player who can have fans asking, “how did he do that?” there is a resemblance to a Byron Scott.

The “X” factor here, though, might be Nicklas Backstrom, who might very well be the key to this series for the Caps. His ability to find teammates for scores (he has 13 assists in eight career games against Pittsburgh) will be important in taking some pressure off the defense – and rookie goalie Semyon Varlamov – at the other end of the ice.

The Caps are 6-1, all-time, in Game 1 against the Penguins. We see no reason why the trend should be any different. It’s a long road ahead, but the first step on it is a good one.

Caps 4 – Penguins 3