It was a familiar sight on Saturday afternoon for Penguins fans. Criticized throughout the season for failing to make the simple plays and getting shots on goal, the Pens’ power play once again failed them in their Eastern Conference Semifinal opener against the Washington Capitals, as the Pens dropped Game One by a score of 3-2.
This was the type of game where one power play goal would have made a huge difference, but the Pens were 0-for-5 and looked confused at times with the man advantage, and they were unable to keep the puck in the zone or get much traffic in front of the net.
A good sign for Pittsburgh is that five-on-five, they were the better team for most of the game, especially in the first 15 minutes or so. Another great sign was that Sidney Crosby seemed to be shooting the puck a lot throughout the game, and it was Crosby who gave the Pens a 1-0 lead at the 4:09 mark with his fifth goal in seven playoff games.
Crosby was flying down the right wing, and he cut across the slot as Caps defenseman Brian Pothier seemed to back off, then he unleashed a blistering wrist shot that eluded the glove of Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov to open up the score. The Pens continued to pressure the Capitals after that, and at one point shots were 11-2 Pittsburgh.
However, much like they did against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Six last week, the Pens had a mini meltdown at the end of the first period and made some critical mistakes that cost them a pair of goals and lost them all the momentum.
Marc-Andre Fleury gave up a bad rebound that led to the tying goal by David Steckel, who was left all alone in front of the net and pounced on a loose puck.
Not too long after that, with no Caps player anywhere near him, Sergei Gonchar tried to make a pass off the boards but ended up shooting the puck over the glass from his own zone to put the Capitals on the power play, and a minute later on the penalty kill, Matt Cooke made an ill advised play at center ice, hooking Alex Ovechkin as he tried to take the puck away from him.
The Caps, who had the second best power play in the NHL during the regular season, converted on the ensuing five-on-three as Ovechkin gave the Caps a 2-1 lead off a feed from Alex Semin with three minutes left in the first.
The Pens started the second period on the power play, with almost the full two minutes to work with, but rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to tie the game at two and silence the fans at the Verizon Center, they seemed to give the Capitals a boost that would give them the energy that they seemed to be missing in the first period.
Marc-Andre Fleury, however, made some key saves to keep the Pens within one, including a great stop on Ovechkin right in front of the net.
Then the Penguins tied the game at two midway through the second on a point shot by Mark Eaton which Simeon Varlamov should have stopped. It was the type of goal that rookie goaltenders give up in playoff games that deflates them, and their teams.
However, Varlamov recovered, and then he made the play of the game and perhaps the best save of the playoffs so far, a highlight reel desperation stop on Sidney Crosby.
On a two-on-one, Crosby took a feed from Chris Kunitz and steered the puck towards an empty net, but Varlamov reached back at the last second and got his stick on the puck right at the goal line. (Video of the save here).
The Pens headed off to the dressing room feeling good about themselves, as they were the better team in the nd half of the middle frame. They would be the better team in the third period as well, but the Caps would get the only goal, the game winner by Tomas Fleischmann.
After Petr Sykora missed the net from about 40 feet, the Caps rushed down the ice and ended up with a two-on-one.
Sergei Gonchar made the first move and tried to block a non-existent shot by Caps assist man Nicklas Backstrom, putting himself out of the play, and Backstrom found Fleischmann right in front of the net, who steered the puck past Fleury to give Washington the lead again less than two minutes into the third.
Then the Pens’ power play, which was already 0-for-3, would get a pair of excellent opportunities to tie the game at three, but they were unable do so. At times they looked disorganized and were unable to gain the zone quickly, and when they did they would give up the puck before being able to get set up.
Other times they seemed nervous and more interested in getting in the right position instead of getting shots on goal and traffic in front of the net. With 15 seconds left on one of those power plays, Kris Letang ended up on the right point, and he decided to switch positions with Gonchar after he fed him the puck, wasting valuable seconds.
It’s that type of hesitation and lack of execution that has haunted the Pens’ power play so often this season.
The Caps would thwart the Pens’ efforts at the end of the game and skated off the ice victoriously, even though they were outshot 13-6 in the third period and 36-26 overall. Now, the Penguins have a day off to practice the power play, go through video, and figure out what they can do better in Game Two.
There was no question coming into the series that the Pens needed to do better while up a man than they did against the Flyers in the first round, and Game One was a perfect example of that. One power play goal would have at least forced overtime in this game, but as it is, Varlamov and the Caps now have the upper hand and lead the series.
Notes and observations
- With three goals, Mark Eaton now has scored more than any Penguins winger in these playoffs.
- Evgeni Malkin has not played well in afternoon games this season. He didn’t have a bad game by any means, but he did not generate many scoring chances, and he got little help from Petr Sykora. Malkin had only two shots on goal. The question now is whether Sykora will remain on Malkin’s line, and if he doesn’t, will Miro Satan replace Sykora in the lineup?
- Crosby led all Penguin forwards with 24:12. Malkin played only 20:49. Ovechkin played 21:13 to lead all Caps forwards. Gonchar led all players in ice time with 28:38.
- Speaking of Gonchar, he did not have his best game. It was surprising to see him go down the way he did on the winning goal, and his delay of game penalty led to Ovechkin’s goal on the five-on-three power play.
- The Pens have lost three of their last five playoff games and they are 1 for 16 on the power play in those games.