While Alexander Ovechkin has been an enormous thorn in the side of Pittsburgh this series, he has six points (5g, 1a) in the three games, it has been the 21 year-old netminder of the Capitals that has posed the most problems for the vaunted Pittsburgh offense.
Despite being outplayed (I’m sure Washington fans will beg to differ) in games one and two, Washingtonwas able to steal two victories from right out underneath the Penguins in huge part to phenomenal play between the pipes from Simeon Varlamov.
"He was outstanding," Washingtoncoach Bruce Boudreau said of his young goalie. "When you get a goaltending effort like that, you have to win, because they don't come around every day."
Varlamov, who has more playoff starts than regular season starts, may be the hottest goaltender remaining in this postseason.
Despite another valiant effort on Wednesday night, in which he made 39 hard-earned saves, it was the offense that came into question for Washington as they managed only 23 shots on Penguin goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury; the Capitals did not register more than eight shots in any period.
Undisciplined play continued to haunt Washington, as the Capitals surrendered seven power-play chances, and brought their series total to 17 power-plays yielded in three games.
But here-in lays the problem for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh has been dreadful this postseason on the power-play, and has converted 3-of-17 power-play opportunities against the Capitals.
Hardly championship caliber numbers.
"I think we've out-chanced them over the three games," Crosby said, referring to Pittsburgh edges of 114-82 in shots and 17-9 in power plays.
"It doesn't matter, because we're down 2-1. But the belief in what we need to do is there, and we're seeing some good results. We're confident if we play this way, we're going to give ourselves a good chance."
The Penguins are convinced that they have the better team, and one would be hard pressed to argue that their depth doesn’t give them a slight edge over the Capitals.
But as coach Boudreau stated after Wednesday night’s loss, "They can think what they want to think. It's not about (outplaying a team)...it's about scoring at the right time, it's about making the big save, it's about coming through in the clutch...I'd much rather be where I am right now than where they are."
Where Washington is, is familiar territory.
1992: Caps up 2-0, Penguins win 4-3. 1995: Caps up 3-1, Penguins win 4-3. 1996: Caps up 2-0, Penguins win 4-2.
Game four will go a long way in deciding this series, and you can rest assured that if Pittsburgh wins, the ghosts of Mario and Jagr past will start to stir up dreadful memories in Washington.
"One goal, one shot," coach Bruce Boudreau said Thursday, referring to how close the Capitals are to being up 3-0.
With the Penguins’ season hinging on every shift, it may have been a bit much to ask for Capitals fans to expect their team to win both games in Pittsburgh, and shut down Crosby and Malkin for two games on home ice.
Fact remains, especially for Alex the Great, that Washingtondoesn’t feel they are overmatched in this series.
"We didn't play our best game (in Game Three), and we went to overtime. It shows a lot and means a lot to us," Ovechkin said. "Friday is going to be a different game, it's going to be a better game for us, for sure."
Another player that it should be a better game for is Pittsburgh’s Hart Trophy nominee, and Art Ross Trophy winner, Evgeni Malkin.
While Crosby and Ovechkin have lived up to the hype surrounding them in this series, both have six points with Crosby netting four goals and two assists to go with Ovechkin’s five goals and one assist, Malkin had been near invisible in this series while recording only a modest two assists.
A dominating performance on Wednesday night, where he generated chance after chance on nearly every shift, was rewarded with a third period goal that gave the Penguins a late third period lead.
Imposing his will, Malkin bobbed, weaved and even ran over Capital defenders while reasserting himself in this series.
"Over the last few days, he's taken a bit of heat," Crosby said. "It was a big game, and he definitely came to play."
Malkin, beleaguered by the media for his lack of production so far this series, even admitted to subpar play after Wednesday’s game three win.
"I feel good. I know I [did] not play good the last two games," Malkin said.
Not all his teammates felt that his efforts were futile however.
"I don't think he was bad the first two games, they (Malkin's shots) just didn't end up in the net," said Kris Letang, whose first career playoff goal won it at 11:23 of overtime. "He was a totally different player. He's always going to put a lot of pressure on himself, Sid does the same thing, and that's why these guys are so good."
Good is an understatement.
The three biggest stars in the NHL squaring off on the grand stage, let the media frenzy begin!
With all three games being decided by a single goal, this series has been everything the NHL could have wanted and more.
Crosby and Ovechkin made NHL history in game two when they became only the fifth pair of opposing players to net a hat trick in the same postseason game, and they have played at such an elite level over the course of this series that it couldn’t have been scripted better had the NHL fixed the games.
Now, enter Evgeni Malkin.
The missing link remains the key figure in Pittsburgh’s chance to advance to the Conference Finals for a second consecutive season.
If Pittsburgh is to be successful in winning game four tonight, they will need another superhuman effort from their MVP candidate.
Sidney Crosby can shoulder only so much of the load, and if Malkin performs like he did in game three, Washington will have to answer to the demons of playoff disappointments of yesteryear.
Keys to victory:
1) Capitalize on the power-play
- While this should go without saying, the Penguins are 3-for-17 with the man advantage. Washington has been very undisciplined in the first three games, and Pittsburgh should not expect another seven power-plays this evening. They will need to capitalize on the chances they get as Washington will be ready to play in an attempt to put the series out of reach at 3-1.
2) Malkin must continue to shine
- With a strong performance under his belt in game three, Evgeni Malkin is going to need to continue to shoulder the load along with Sidney Crosby. The Penguins rely heavily on their two-headed monster to produce for them, and with other stars such as Jordan Staal, Petr Sykora, Billy Guerin and Chris Kunitz struggling this postseason, Pittsburgh will need Malkin to continue to enforce his will against Washington.
3) Fleury must limit mistakes
- Bad bounces did Fleury in on Wednesday, but the Pittsburghnetminder has been less than stellar in the second round. Fleury will need to return to the form he displayed in round one against the Philadelphia Flyers if Pittsburgh hopes to seize momentum in this series. Expect an angry Ovechkin to be merciless in his quest to beat the Pittsburghnetminder. Fleury needs to be a rock for Pittsburgh to win.
1) Will Varlamov bounce back
- Washington’s 21 year-old netminder has been the best goaltender this postseason. After allowing only seven goals in six games against the Rangers, Varlamov has weathered an unrelenting Pittsburghassault.
For anyone that thought he would be exposed for the inexperienced goalkeeper he is, they have been proven horribly wrong. After a huge letdown, in a game that he was unfathomably efficient, Varlamov will need to have a short memory and avoid a hangover from defeat.
2) Semin must have a “Malkin-like” game
- While a lot of focus has fallen on the sub-par play of Malkin, and his disappointing disappearance, Alexander Semin has not fared much better. Semin has registered a pedestrian three assists in the three games thus far, and has failed to shoulder his brunt of the load in the Washingtonoffense.
After a strong first series, Semin will need to find himself quickly before this series starts to slip away.
3) Limit Pittsburgh power-plays
- Washington has given up 17 power-plays in three games. By continually finding themselves in the penalty box they hamper their ability to gain any kind of offensive momentum. These mental lapses also keep Ovechkin off the ice, and Pittsburgh on the attack.
While the Penguins have been largely ineffective so far, they have entirely to much offensive firepower to stay down for long. The Capital defense needs to help their young goaltender as it is not favorable to think he can continue to stand on his head for the rest of this series.