Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals: Pens Advance to Conference Finals

Eric NaughtonCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

WASHINGTON - MAY 13:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates against Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinal  Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC.The Penguins defeated the Capitals 6-2 to move into the semifinals.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In the playoffs, hockey becomes a game of inches.  In Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, the Penguins won by a yard.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury faced 21 shots and stopped 19.  The difference in this game was Fleury's huge saves on Ovechkin in the first period.  

About three minutes into the game, Ovechkin is sprung loose with an excellent outlet pass.  Ovie streaks toward the goal, blowing past the Penguins defense, and is robbed by Fleury.

Not long after his first chance, Fleury makes another key save on an Ovechkin shot.  AO ripped a wicked wrister from the left circle, intended for the corner above Fleury's blocker.  Unfortunately for Ovie, the puck connects with the upper shaft of Fleury's stick instead of the twine behind.

If either of these chances had gone in the net, the game would have gone in a completely different direction.  Ovechkin's breakaway would have been the first goal of the game.  The next chance would have tied the game at one goal apiece.

Fleury continues to have trouble playing the puck behind the net.  The blame for MAF's assist on Ovechkin's empty net goal cannot rest entirely on Fleury's shoulders, however. Watching the CBC replay of that goal, you clearly hear the Pens' defenseman yelling, "Marc!" to get the puck. 

Fleury, head down, passes the puck toward the voice, but Ovechkin is swooping in and easily intercepts the pass and coolly deposits it into the vacant cage.

Luckily for the Penguins, they had a five goal lead.  At 3-0 or 2-0, this goal may have been the spark the Caps needed to get rolling.

Sergei Gonchar and The Powerplay

Sergei Gonchar returned to the lineup after recovering (enough) from his knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin in Game Five.  Sarge only played 15 minutes but his early shifts were the most important. 

His shot toward the net on the Penguins' first powerplay proved to be the primary assist on the first goal of the game after Sidney Crosby corralled the puck and banged it past the Capitals' netminder.

Both of Crosby's goals came on the powerplay.  In the first half of a four minute, high-sticking penalty to Brooks Laich, Washington pressed into the Penguins' zone short handed. 

The puck wandered off of Ovechkin's stick and Crosby was there to take it, unmolested, two-thirds of the ice and get the puck past Jose Theodore for the sixth tally of the game.

The final part of this story is the deadly, devastating, destructive Washington Capitals powerplay.  All five Capitals powerplay goals either tied the game or gave them the lead. In Game Seven, the Caps scored zero powerplay goals.  The reason for this is that the Penguins spent zero minutes in the sin bin.

Alexander Ovechkin

This guy is the most dangerous goal scorer in the NHL.  He scores great goals, clutch goals and celebrates with enthusiasm.  He strikes fear in the hearts of opponents with his scoring power and his hitting power.

In Game Seven, stymied by Fleury twice in the first period, Ovechkin struggled throughout the game to get his wheels turning.  He scored on a gimme from Fleury but just couldn't celebrate, choosing a businesslike and determined attitude after the goal.  I expected another goal within a shift or two.

Alexander was limited to three shots on goal and five hits on Penguins players.  His biggest hit came against Nicklas Backstrom after Malkin avoided the flying Ovie.  Backstrom got up slowly and headed to the bench.

Just when the Caps were pressing and threatening to get a short-handed goal, Ovechkin coughed up the puck to Crosby (see above).

Detroit Shut Down

This Game Seven reminds me so much of the Red Wings' performance in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Detroit would get the lead and shut down the opponent.

Ovechkin, Semin, Green, Kozlov, Federov, Steckel...these guys were unable to accomplish anything n the game.  Almost every time a Capitals player controlled the puck, three Penguins were there to break up the play.  

The Caps were never able to get in the groove due to the Pens' pressure, puck control, effective sticks and shot blocking.  The Penguins also executed offensive zone puck possession very well—a good offense is the best defense.

In other games, the Capitals were able to blame their lack of flow on the large amount of penalties.  Tonight, you can only credit Pittsburgh's tenacity and commitment to solid defensive play and puck management.

In 2002, the Red Wings defeated the Colorado Avalanche in a Game Seven by the score of 7-0.  Detroit, like Pittsburgh, chased the goalie from the net in that game.  The only difference was the Colorado netminder was Patrick Roy.

Sidney Crosby

So Mr. Semin, what do you think of Sidney Crosby now?  

In six games against the Philadelphia Flyers, Crosby recorded four goals and four assists.  In seven games against the Washington Capitals, Crosby recorded eight goals (inlcuding his first playoff hat trick) and five assists.  

Three of his goals in this postseason were put in out of midair.  He scored another spectacular goal by taking a pass out of midair, expertly maneuvering the bouncing puck around Varlamov and putting it in the net.

Crosby, Ovechkin, and Malkin are the top three scorers in the playoffs but Crosby is tops with 12 goals and 11 assists.  Sid is putting up numbers at better then 1.6 per game.

It's not just the points, though.  Crosby has an uncanny ability to take control of a game, and swing momentum to the Pens in just one shift.  He wins key faceoffs, scores go ahead goals, scores tying goals, assists on key goals, he puts his stamp on the game in every shift.

There is no "I" in "T-E-A-M"

The NHL made this series out to be a duel between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.  The real key to victory was the team effort put forth by both squads.

Five of the first six games were decided by a single goal.  Three of the first six games were decided in overtime.  

Both teams had an effective game plan.  Pittsburgh's game was offensive zone puck possession and lots of shots.  Washington's game was speedy breakouts through the neutral zone with activated defensemen and a strong powerplay.

Washington prevailed in the first two games.  It takes a complete team effort to win three games in a row when you're in a 2-0 hole.  Both teams won important games on the road.

While it may seem that Ovechkin was Washington's entire offense, he did get a lot of scoring support.  Fleischmann, Steckel, Kozlov, and Backstrom provided important secondary scoring.

For Pittsburgh, Geurin, Eaton, Letang, Fedotenko, and former Capital Matt Cooke scored important goals to supplement Crosby's output.

The only drawback...

The only bad thing about this series ending is that it's over.  As a Penguins fan, I'm ecstatic that the Penguins continue to beat the runner-up curse and will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

I'm disappointed that we will have to wait until September for Alexander Ovechkin to amaze and astound us again.

I am also disappointed that Pittsburgh and Washington will never play each other for the Stanley Cup.

This will surely go down in history as one of the best playoff series ever, despite the seeming blowout Game Seven.

Washington fans must console themselves with the knowledge that their beloved Capitals will return to the playoffs again next year.  

Pittsburgh fans must now prepare to chomp on their fingernails for at least four more games.



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