This Afternoon…

It is, as Spouse has dubbed the Series, “Crosbys vs. Ovechkins” in an intriguing second-round matchup of two of the game’s most marketable and thrilling stars. My allegiance, of course, lies with my adoptive team: the Washington Capitals. A playoff orphan, in view of the continued on ice suck-itude at Bay and Front, I am once again cheering for the Caps and this guy:

Alexander Ovechkin Feb 14 09 vs. Tampa
Ovechkin prepares to drop a bomb from the point on the Tampa Bay goalie

Update: Holy goalie Batman, Simeon Varlamov was awesome.   Ovechkin had a great game (at one point early in the second period, I had him with one goal, two posts and another quality scoring chance that Fleury stoned him on) – but Varlamov made the difference in this one.

I thought the Capitals came out a little flat and let the Penguins control the play in the first period, and the young goaltender stood his ground pretty well.  He couldn’t be faulted for missing Crosby’s rocket from the slot at around the 5 minute mark.   The Washingtonians seemed to come on after Steckel got what was essentially a fluky goal on a weird bounce right on to his stick in front of Fleury.  The Gr8 Eight started to put on a bit of a show following that, including one sequence where he went basically Harlem Globetrotters on Matt Cooke in the neutral zone, irritating the Penguin forward enough to cause him to draw a hooking penalty. The Caps scored on the ensuing power play.

The Crosbys drew even in the second period on a long shot from the point that Varlamov appeared to misjudge;  the puck glanced off his glove and ended up behind him.  Momentum in the game could easily have swung back to the Pittsburgh bench at that point – after all, despite carrying the play for the majority of the game, the Penguins were even up on the road.  Crosby and his mates sensed the opportunity and put on a push late in the second, and it was here that Varlamov truly shone.  In what may turn out to be the save of the entire playoffs, just minutes after the blunder that tied the game, Varlamov turned away a certain goal off the stick of Sidney Crosby on a bang-bang play in deep.  A turnover up ice had given the Penguins an opportunity on the rush.  The Penguins played their attack perfectly, criss-crossing on the way into the Washington zone. Mike Green and Tom Poti bungled the defensive coverage, with Poti switching off fluidly but Green seeming to hesitate. The end result was that Sidney Crosby was briefly totally uncovered to Varlamov’s right. The Penguins’ puck carrier Chris Kunitz saw the opening and fed the puck quickly cross ice to Crosby, leaving the Capitals’ cage essentially undefended from the Penguin captain’s vantage point. A Penguin goal seemed inevitable, but Varlamov would not quit. As Crosby redirected the pass perfunctorily towards the open net, Varlamov turned, dove across the crease and extended his stick in an emergency maneuver. He blocked Crosby’s tap-in at the very moment that it arrived sliding along the ice at the goal line.  With that save, instead of facing a one-goal deficit at the end of the second, the Caps headed to the dressing in the intermission with a chance to regroup and get back to the responsible defence and deadly counter-attack tactics that had served them well since approximately half way through the first period.

The third period was almost an anticlimax;  you could sense at that moment that the Caps had regained whatever confidence had momentarily been lost in their 21-year old rookie goalie.  They continued to press the attack and – although Pittsburgh, to their credit, did not fold – the final result was never seriously in doubt.

Following game 7 of the Rangers/Caps series, Spouse and I were both of the view that the Caps could not beat the Penguins.   I am equally certain now that I was wrong about that;  I had not given the Caps enough credit for their defensive ability.  They won’t fool anybody into believing they’re the vintage trap-era New Jersey Devils, but – aside from the opening eight or ten minutes of the game – they played a discipline and committed system.  Sergei Fedorov and John Erskine in particular were both generally terrific on Sidney Crosby.  Malkin and Jordan Staal were more or less invisible.

On the whole, the game was exciting and filled with fast moving, creative and exciting hockey.  I won’t be missing a minute of it.

Keeping in mind that in days gone by I have been one of the all-time hugest defenders of CBC play-by-play man Bob Cole, it has to be mentioned that Bob is definitely showing signs that he is now well past his prime and ready for retirement. That Simeon Varlamov play? Coley missed it entirely – he had Crosby’s shot going off the post. The most amazing save of the playoffs, and Bob didn’t see it.