17,132 screaming Pittsburgh fans crammed the Mellon Arena on Friday night to watch as their hometown Penguins solved the enigma that was Simeon Varlamov, and run away with a 5-3 victory on home ice to tie their second-round series with the Washington Capitals at two.
The first game to be decided by more than one goal offered a very different storyline than what fans have come to expect in this series.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the focal points of this series, have exceeded any and all expectations in this series. Dueling hat tricks in game two have highlighted the outstanding play of the NHL’s two premier players.
Entering the game with six points apiece, the two were showing no signs of slowing down in their game of one-upmanship.
Enter Evgeni Malkin into the fray with a series defining performance in game three, and the stage was set for a showdown of apocalyptic proportions between the three best players in the world.
…Not so fast.
Of the eight goals scored on Friday night only one was recorded by the big three, who were kept relatively in check all night; compare this to game two when six of the seven goals were scored by Crosby and Ovechkin, and you can see that this series does indeed boil down to more than just the elite triumvirate of Sid, Ovie and Geno.
For the second night in a row, the Capitals asserted their authority early.
It took 93 seconds for Washington to score in game three, and on Friday night in game four it took less than half that as Nicklas Backstrom buried his second goal of this postseason only 36 seconds into the first.
Again, the Penguin faithful were silenced.
But, as it’s held true for every game of this series, the first goal would spell the demise of Washington; the team that has scored first in this series has lost all four games.
Pittsburgh would ring off three unanswered goals to close out the first period, as Sergei Gonchar (3:55), Billy Guerin (10:47) and Ruslan Fedotenko (15:25) put the Penguins ahead 3-1 heading into the intermission.
Fedotenko scored for the second night in a row, and both Gonchar and Guerin ended long scoring droughts with big goals to give Pittsburgh what appeared to be an insurmountable amount of momentum.
Washington’s young netminder, who had been playing lights out this postseason, was visibly rattled by a couple soft goals and finally showed signs of mortality that might suggest some kinks in the armor.
Whether or not Washington coach Bruce Boudreau replaces the suddenly human Varlamov with a well-rested Jose Theodore remains to be seen, but Boudreau had supportive words after the game.
"There were four soft goals out of the five," Boudreau said. "But he'll bounce back. He's a real competitive guy."
Competitive or not, this game had a bit of an anti-climatic feel to it as Pittsburgh has been the decisively better team throughout the first four games.
It has been Varlarmov that has been the best Capital on the ice, playing well beyond his years in carrying Washington on his back for wins in game one and two; Varlamov was the best player on the ice again in game three, and played well enough to steal another victory, but it was the Washington offense that let him down.
That same offense was held largely in check after scoring an early first period goal.
Chris Clark scored his first goal of the postseason at 15:08 of the second period to bring Washington within one goal, and after a Sidney Crosby goal at 4:16 of the third put the Penguins ahead 4-2, Milan Jurcina scored his second postseason goal at 6:23 of the third, shorthanded, to again close the gap to one goal.
This would be all the scoring for the Capitals, as Maxime Talbot used a brilliant individual effort in the neutral zone to close out the scoring and put the Penguins up by the final score of 5-3.
Washington played more than two minutes with an empty net, and neither team was able to capitalize on various scoring opportunities.
Talbot, who was thrust into struggling winger Petr Sykora’s spot on Penguin’s second line with Evgeni Malkin, has been very effective in his role as a catalyst for the Penguins success.
Don’t forget that it was Talbot who took on Philadelphia tough man Daniel Carcillo in the Penguins game six series-clinching win. Talbot’s teammates have credited that fight with being the spark that ignited the Penguins comeback from a 3-0 deficit in that game to win 5-3.
Sometimes, it’s not always the elite talents that play the most important role in a team’s success.
“He brings a lot of energy to the room, both on and off the ice. He brings that, so that's important," Crosby said. "For any team's chemistry, you need those different personalities. He's got some skill, as well, so he can make little plays down low and things like that, but he just brings that element of winning battles and creating loose pucks.”
Encouraging words from the NHL’s postseason leader in goals (9).
Not all was positive for Pittsburgh on the night though.
Sergei Gonchar was injured on a knee-on-knee hit from fellow countryman, and Olympic teammate, Alexander Ovechkin.
The hit, which drew the ire of everyone in a black and gold uniform, put Gonchar down for over a minute before he had to be helped off the ice.
"It's kind of the same thing he [Ovechkin] did with me last game," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I mean, you can run guys, guys are fair game, but the guy takes strides every time and leaves his feet a lot of times, too. To us, we got the feeling he's really trying to hurt guys at times."
The hit, which could result in a fine or suspension if the league determines malicious intent, could play a huge impact in the chemistry of the Penguins, as Gonchar is not only among the Pens leaders in minutes played, but is the quarterback of a power-play unit that can ill-afford to lose any pieces.
"We missed Gonch for a long time, we were forced to play guys in a couple of different positions, and now we've got to use that experience and find a way to still be productive without him," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "There's no choice right now."
Gonchar missed nearly three-fourths of the Penguins regular season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Ovechkin, who was seen talking to Evgeni Malkin’s father after the game, didn’t recount the hit as anything other than a normal hockey play.
"I just tried to move him and I hit him, he turned to move to his left and, I don't know, I don't have time to realize what's going on and he hit my knee," Ovechkin said. "I think it was an accident. I'm not the kind of player who wants to injure guys, especially ones I know like Gonch."
The Capitals star continued to express his disappointment after the game.
"I was disappointed, too," Ovechkin said. "I don't want him to get hurt, Gonch, but it's a game and it happens."
There will be no rest for the weary, as this series will continue on Saturday night in Washington.
Just as they did in 1992 and 1996, the Penguins are poised to complete another comeback, after falling behind early in a series to the Capitals.
The momentum has shifted in this series, no longer are the Capitals in control.
"We're right back in it and we have momentum on our side and we'll try to keep it going," said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 19 saves.
Game five will do more than give one of these two teams a 3-2 lead in the series, especially if that team is Pittsburgh. If the Penguins can steal game five on Washington’s home ice, they will all but have deflated the Capitals to the point of elimination as they will have total control.
Expect no one to hold back in what could be the most exciting game of this series to date.