Friday, January 01, 2010

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 1: The Series

“The poetry is all in the anticipation, for there is none in reality”

-- Mark Twain

Number 1: The Series

On July 22, 2005, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes when their ping pong ball came up in a lottery to assign the order of selection for the 2005 entry draft. From that day forward, there was keen anticipation of the first playoff meeting of Crosby of the Penguins and Ovechkin of the Capitals. Never mind that the teams would play regular season games against one another; it wouldn’t really matter in the broader world of hockey until they met on a stage where the stakes truly mattered.

It came to pass that in the second round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, the teams would finally meet on the big stage. The Penguins dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers in a six-game series, and the Caps came back from a 3-1 deficit to overtake the New York Rangers in a seven game series. For the Penguins it would be a step toward a return to the Stanley Cup final. For the Capitals it would be the first time they played in a playoff series later than the first round since dropping a series to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup finals.

Game 1 – The Save

Going into the game, all eyes were on the principals in this battle – Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Little did anyone know that a goalie would steal the show. Semyon Varlamov had been called up to the Caps twice during the regular season, compiling a record of 4-0-1, 2.37, .918. But his star really shone in the first round series against the Rangers when he came on in relief of a less-than-effective Jose Theodore and posted a record of 4-2, 1.17, .957, with two shutouts. The Penguins, though, were a considerable step up in weight class.

The game was played closely enough, with the Penguins taking the lead on a goal by Crosby (of course), then the Caps coming back to take a lead on a goal by Ovechkin (naturally). Mark Eaton tied the game for the Penguins midway through the second period on a long shot from the point that was characterized by NBC analyst Pierre McGuire as one with “a lot of odor on it,” referring to Varlamov misplaying the puck with his glove. Five minutes after the goal, though, Varlamov would redeem himself indeed.

With the clock head toward two minutes remaining in the period 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 and 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. It was enough to allow Varlamov to deflect it back and out of harm’s way so that Mike Green could move it out of danger.

It was left to the trio of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann to make Varlamov’s effort worthwhile, when early in the third period, Semin gained the Penguin line. He then slapped a pass to Nicklas Backstrom at the top of the left wing circle. Gliding in further, Backstrom snapped a pass to Fleischmann, who had rushed for the net. Fleischmann chipped the puck over Marc-Andre Fleury for what would be the game-winner. But it was Varlamov who would be called upon to make that goal stand up, and he did, turning away all 13 shots he faced in the period to give the Caps the 3-2 win in Game 1.

Game 2 – Anything you can do…

Game 2 began much as did Game 1, with a goal by Sidney Crosby, this time in the game’s seventh minute as the Penguins were on a power play. It was the only goal of the first period, although it could have been more. Varlamov was dancing in the crease once more, first halting a breakaway by Kris Letang, then coming up with bang-bang saves on Crosby and Sergei Gonchar to keep the margin to a single goal. But if anyone thought this would be a battle of goaltenders, the second period might not have put an end to that thinking, but the scorers did get a measure of revenge.

Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged signature goals – Ovechkin on a one-timer on a cross-ice pass from Viktor Kozlov, Crosby from the doorstep batting home a loose puck. But it was an odd bounce that led to the second Washington goal of the period. Brian Pothier took a shot from outside that hit a Penguin and ricocheted to Tyler Sloan. Sloan fired, and the puck deflected again, but not back outside, rather to the edge of the right wing circle, right onto the tape of David Steckel, who snapped the puck past Fleury before the netminder could reset himself.

The period became the Alex Ovechkin Show. With Evgeni Malkin off on a tripping call, Nicklas Backstrom won a draw in the Penguin end, kicking the puck back to Mike Green. Green forwarded the puck to Ovechkin at the left circle, and Ovechkin wired it on a one-timer over Fleury’s blocker to give the Caps the lead. Three minutes later, it was all Ovechkin. Picking up a puck that Kozlov dug out from along the boards at the benches, Ovechkin carried the puck into the Penguin zone. Moving right to left through the zone, he pulled the puck back to his forehand and froze defenseman Sergei Gonchar. That provided enough of a screen for Ovechkin to unleash a wrist shot that eluded Fleury over his catching glove, giving the Caps a two-goal lead and Ovechkin the hat trick that would inspire some unseemly complaining on the part of the Caps’ favorite Penguin.

The Caps would need that two-goal margin in the end. With the clock ticking toward 30 seconds remaining and the Penguins having a 6-4 manpower advantage (power play plus an extra attacker), Sidney Crosby took three whacks at a loose puck just to Varlamov’s left, the last whack batting the puck out of mid-air and into the net to close the margin to one and lend some suspense to the last half-minute of play and the score standing at 4-3, where it would remain. Crosby’s weren’t the only whacks on the play. In the seconds leading up to Crosby’s effort, Chris Kunitz took some mighty whacks of his own – at the side of Varlamov’s head with some deftly placed cross checks as Varlamov was defending his right post. The NHL chose not to punish Kunitz, and the series moved to Pittsburgh with the Caps up, 2-0.

Game 3 – Bounces

A hockey puck is not round. It has edges, and as such it can take some pretty strange bounces. Such would be the case in Game 3, early and late. Less than 90 seconds in the Caps sent the puck into the Pittsburgh end, and the Penguins began a line change. But down in the Pittsburgh end, Marc-Andre Fleury was losing his stick as the puck was taking an odd hop off the boards and coming back up the slot. The last skater a Penguin fan would want to see first on the puck was just that, as Alex Ovechkin rifled it into the twine before Fleury could get back in front of his net.

Ruslan Fedotenko got it back for Pittsburgh when he took Maxime Talbot with him on a 2-on-1 rush into the Caps zone. Looking as if he might pass, then passing (or at least appearing to), the puck slid through or deflected off a sliding Milan Jurcina, back defending for the Caps, and past Varlamov.

It was Evgeni Malkin who would then tear a page from the Ovechkin handbook. Cradling the puck on his stick, he curled against the grain to the top of the circles in the Capitals’ end. Taking advantage of the wash in front of him, Malkin sailed the puck through a screen and past Varlamov before the goalie could flinch. Malkin put an exclamation point on it with a leap into the glass for good measure.

It would be yet another odd bounce that would get the game tied once more. With the clock showing less than two minutes in regulation and the Caps on a power play, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom played catch along the boards in the Penguins end. Semin ended up with the puck and tried to feed Ovechkin steaming down the slot. The puck ricocheted back behind the goal line to Fleury’s right, however, onto the stick of Backstrom. From there, Backstrom flicked the puck toward the pile in front where it appeared to bounce off Fleury and into the net to tie the game.

It would not be the last odd bounce. No, that one would be a two-fer. In overtime, Sidney Crosby took a draw against David Steckel in the Caps’ end. Crosby had a history of difficulty in faceoffs (those things being relative, considering the other skills he brings), while Steckel is one of the best faceoff men in the league. Not on this draw. Crosby won it, pulling the puck back to Mark Eaton, who guided the puck over to Kris Letang. Letang let fly with a one timer that clipped first Shaone Morrisonn, then the pipe on its way to the back of the net to give the Penguins the 3-2 overtime win.

Game 4 – Cracks

If you go back and listen to the play-by-play of the first three games, two things can be taken away from it. First, the Penguins were spending an inordinate amount of time in the Capitals’ end of the ice, getting a ton of shots in doing so, and Semyon Varlamov was playing out of his mind, even though he did allow eight goals in the first three games.

In Game 4, Varlamov would finally show some cracks under the unrelenting pressure the Penguins were applying. Nicklas Backstrom would get the Caps off on the right foot early, scoring on the game’s first shot 36 seconds into the game. But the Penguins would storm back with three unanswered goals in the first period, two of them long-range shots that Varlamov should have stopped. It might have been entirely different had Sergei Fedorov: a) had one shot that hit the post ricochet in instead of out, and b) been able to take a nice feed from John Erskine and lift a forehand just a little higher over a sprawled Marc Andre Fleury. He didn’t but that wasn’t the worst of things for the Caps – or the Penguins – in the period. Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Gonchar collided knee-on-knee, and Gonchar took the worst of it. It was the sort of hit that might have resulted in “supplemental discipline” in the regular season, but on this occasion the NHL took no action.

As for the rest, it was a case of Varlamov finally looking like a barely-21-year old goaltender in his first playoff. He had his moments of top-notch saves – again the Penguins were putting relentless pressure on the Caps – but the goals he allowed were more often on the sorts of shots he might see in pre-game warm-ups. It was not a good night for the young goalie or for the Caps as the Penguins tied the series with the 5-3 win.

Game 5 – Bounces II

In the history of this rivalry, the Caps and Penguins had played in seven Games 5. The Penguins won them all. Even if this game was being played at Verizon Center, it was a lot of history to overcome. And after a scoreless first period, it looked as if history was going to repeat itself early in the second. Jordan Staal circled around the Caps’ net and left the puck for Miroslav Satan. Satan sent the puck right back to Staal at the edge of the right wing circle, and Staal snapped it past Semyon Varlamov for the game’s first goal.

But history would be put on hold as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom notched goals in the second to give the Caps the lead at the second intermission. But that lead wouldn’t last a full minute of the third period, as Ruslan Fedotenko took a drop pass from Evgeni Malkin and sent his eighth shot of the game past Semyon Varlamov’s glove to tie the contest. Matt Cooke gave the Penguins the lead less than six minutes later, and it was left to Marc-Andre Fleury to slam the door on the Caps.

And he might have done it, too, had Varlamov not made a whale of a shoulder save on a backhander by Chris Kunitz at the other end. The Caps gathered up the puck and headed the other way. Mike Green took a pass from Alexander Semin at the Penguin line, then fed it to Nicklas Backstrom in the middle. Backstrom then eased the puck over to Alex Ovechkin coming through the right wing circle, and Ovechkin snapped the puck past Fleury to tie the game again. That would be how the game would finish in regulation.

18 seconds into the overtime session, David Steckel collected a loose puck at the edge of the right wing circle and had the game on his stick. He had the puck on his forehand with an open net in front of him and Fleury on the ice swimming desperately for shore. If his shot is six inches more to the inside, six inches higher, the Caps would have been traveling to Pittsburgh with two chances to stick a fork in the Penguins.

Steckel missed.

Less than a minute later Milan Jurcina took a penalty, tripping Evgeni Malkin as he was cutting between Jurcina and Sergei Fedorov. You could almost see what would unfold, but even Caps fans had to shake their heads at just how it happened. As the penalty to Jurcina was winding down, Malkin had the puck on his stick and was skating down the right side. Sidney Crosby was on his left, charging for the net. Malkin was being marked by Sergei Fedorov, but when Malkin got Fedorov to turn his body in pursuit, he started to curl to the net with positional advantage. Malkin then tried to feed the puck across to Crosby, but a diving Tom Poti was there to keep the pass from getting through. Unfortunately, he did not get enough of the puck to deflect it past the post, he deflected it just enough so that it could sneak under Varlamov’s pads and into the net, giving the Penguins the 4-3 win and a vise-grip lock on the series as it headed back to Pittsburgh, the Penguins up 3-2.

Game 6 – Redemption

The only people on the planet who thought the Caps might extend the series to a Game 7 in Washington were perhaps the players and coaches in the locker room before the game. As it turned out, those were the only people who mattered, for it would take only their best effort to extend this series. And that is what they provided in a game that was as close to a heavyweight slug fest as you could find in these playoffs.

It didn’t look that way early, as Pittsburgh got the only goal of the first period, a tally by Bill Guerin in the game’s sixth minute, finishing off a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby. But the Caps got it back early in the second when Viktor Kozlov took a feed from Alex Ovechkin, stared down goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for a couple of beats, then wristed the puck over Fleury’s glove for the equalizer. Eight minutes later it would be Tomas Flesichmann giving the Caps the lead, but the play was made by Alexander Semin. After taking a lead pass just outside the Penguin line, Semin found himself with only open ice between himself and Fleury. However, Bill Guerin was close enough to haul him down before Semin could get a shot off. Semin stayed with the puck behind the Penguin net, got to his feet, fought through a check, then found Sergei Fedorov in the left wing circle. Fedorov sent a slap shot that hit a body in front, but Fleischmann was there to swat the loose puck past Fleury and give the Caps a 2-1 lead.

It was a lead the Caps wouldn’t hold. In the last minute of the period, Evgeni Malkin carried the puck down the right side and tried to feed Chris Kunitz skating down the middle. The puck was deflected back and onto the stick of Mark Eaton, who curled to his right and wristed the puck past Semyon Varlamov to tie the game at two at the second intermission.

Less than five minutes into the third and the Penguins on a power play, Alex Goligoski sent a drive toward the Caps net that hit Boyd Gordon and went wide. But the puck took a long carom off the end boards onto the stick of Kris Letang, who snapped it past Varlamov to give the Penguins the lead again at 3-2. Not quite a minute later, the Caps got it back when the Caps had a power play of their own. This time it was Alexander Semin at the left wing half boards setting up the play. Without a passing lane open to him, he flung the puck at the net, where it hit Brooks Laich on the way through and past Fleury to tie the game at three.

Barely half a minute after the tying goal, the Caps were crashing the Penguin net again. Viktor Kozlov left the puck for Nicklas Backstrom in the right wing circle, and Backstrom rifled it past the cage. But the puck came right back onto Kozlov’s stick as Kozlov was circling behind the cage. Fleury could not get back the crease as he was being held up by his own defensmen, Hal Gill, who had skated into the creased behind him. That gave Kozlov an open net at which to shoot, and he wristed the puck from a bad angle into the open net to give the Caps the lead once more, 4-3.

The Penguins would forge one last tie when the puck came out to defenseman Brooks Orpik with the clock ticking under five minutes in regulation. Orpik sent a shot to the net that was blocked, but Sidney Crosby swept behind the Caps defense and with some deft stick work managed to flip the puck past Varlamov to tie the game at four and send the contest to overtime.

It is said there are no second acts in life. Well, sometimes there are second chances, and for one Capital it came in the seventh minute of overtime. After the Penguins had a chance at the 4:05 mark, a shot from Rob Scuderi being deflected and hitting the crossbar, the Caps found themselves in the Penguin end to take a faceoff at the 6:15 mark. David Steckel won the draw as Maxime Talbot broke his stick, the puck coming back to Brooks Laich at the right point. As Laich was collecting the puck, Steckel was making a bee-line for the net to provide some traffic in front of Fleury. Laich wrong-footed a wrist shot toward the net, and Steckel, who out-fought Philippe Boucher for position in front of Fleury, got enough of his stick on the incoming shot to deflect it down and past Fleury’s blocker to get a measure of redemption for his Game 6 miss, send the Caps bench into delirium, and move the series home for a Game 7, the Caps winning this one, 5-4.

Game 7 – There is no poetry in reality

If you could freeze that moment, that picture, when David Steckel and Matt Bradley can be seen with sticks in the air celebrating the overtime winner of Game 6, it would be a nice ending to the story. But there remained a Game 7 to be played on Verizon Center ice. And the clock struck midnight on the Cinderella story of Semyon Varlamov’s playoff and that of the Capitals. The coach turned into a pumpkin, the horses were turned to mice, and the poem needing a last verse was rewritten as an epitaph as the Penguins scored the game’s first five goals, chased Varlamov to the bench, and celebrated a 6-2 series-clinching win on Verizon Center ice, the second straight year an opponent would end the Caps year in such fashion.

It was especially painful thinking that if Alex Ovechkin scores on a breakaway three minutes into the game, the result might have been different. But truth be told, that is probably a delusion. The Penguins had poured 226 shots at Varlamov in the first six games of the series, an average of almost 38 a game. Even though the Penguins recorded their lowest shot total of the series (30), the damage had been done. The kid really had nothing else to give, and with the teams more or less equal in other aspect of the series (the Penguins had a 21-20 edge in goals going into Game 7, with three of the previous six games going to overtime), that was the difference.

It was, though, almost everything a hockey fan could want in a series. The stars produced – Ovechkin finished the series 8-6-14, plus-5, with one game winning goal; Crosby finished 8-5-13, plus-4, with one game-winning goal. The teams played back and forth with only one game among the first six decided by more than one goal.

In the end, it was another step on the path to what Caps fans hope will be a Stanley Cup of their own to celebrate. It was, as such things often are, a hard lesson along that path. For Semyon Varlamov, it was a case of getting the crash course he needed in playoff pressure. While he was spectacular at times, there were an uncomfortable number of soft goals, too. For the other Capitals, they got to see what it means to pay a price, as the Penguins never relented in the pressure they applied, and it was more their support players making a difference in this series than perhaps Crosby or Malkin.

For all of this, the Penguins-Capitals series is the top story for the Capitals of 2009. But this is 2010, and with a new year comes new hope. The Caps are by any measure at this stage of their development an elite team. They have the talent to win a Stanley Cup, and frankly it is the only goal that matters now. That’s the fate of elite teams. Here is to hoping 2010 is that year and that when we do this again at the end of the year, the top story can be written about that which matters most in the sport…

Happy New Year.

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