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WASHINGTON -- The air came out of the balloon pretty quickly Wednesday night. The Penguins took no prisoners in a decisive 6-2 win over the Capitals. Here are five things that stood out for me:
1. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn't have to put his team on his back in this one-sided Game 7, but he did provide a monster save that set the tempo for the evening.
Just three minutes into the game, Capitals super sniper Alex Ovechkin sneaked behind Pens defenseman Rob Scuderi on the left-wing side and swooped in on a breakaway. It was a moment. The raucous "Rock the Red" sellout crowd at the Verizon Center rose, ready to explode. Alex the Great gave a little shake-and-bake before loading up his forehand. He fired low and hard, then ... silence. The puck disappeared into Fleury's white trapper. The building sighed. Meanwhile, the save stoked the fire on the Penguins' bench.
"That kind of great stop, especially on the road, it calms you down," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "It makes you feel good. He really stood tall for us."
Afterward, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau wistfully saw the save as an early turning point. "If Alex had put that one in on the breakaway, maybe it's different," said Boudreau, who has been around long enough to spot a bad omen when he sees one.
Fleury finished the night with 19 saves. Up 5-0 late in the second period, he gave one back to Ovechkin by misplaying the puck behind his net. At that moment, though, the game was long gone. And although the home crowd cheered and the horn blared, everybody knew it would be just a matter of time.
Playoff goaltending is about timely saves. In this Game 7, Fleury sent a strong message to his bench that he was ready for the challenge. After a run to the Cup finals last season, Fleury's professional pedigree continues to grow. On Wednesday, early in a scoreless elimination game, he added another line to his résumé.
2. On the flip side, we all knew a Jose Theodore sighting would be bad news for the Capitals. The club's former starter, who was benched after a dreadful performance in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Rangers, returned to the crease at the 2:12 mark of the second period after kid stopper Simeon Varlamov surrendered his fourth goal on 18 shots. "I was thinking about pulling him after the third goal," Boudreau said. "He looked really down after that one. I probably should have done it then."
The 21-year-old netminder, who had been so very capable in his previous 12 playoff starts, stumbled badly in unlucky No. 13. He gave up an absolutely brutal goal to fourth-liner Craig Adams at the 12:44 mark of the first period. (Unsurprising stat: It was Adams' first playoff goal.) It came just eight seconds after the Pens had grabbed a 1-0 lead on a power-play tally by Crosby. That's not the time to give up a stinker in a preseason game, no less a Game 7. Then, in the first 132 seconds of the second period, Varlamov was beaten by long-distance bombs from Bill Guerin and Kris Letang. "I hit the 7-hole," said a happy Guerin, pointing to the area between the arm and the body.
In Varlamov's defense, the Caps' defensive effort was beyond bad in such a big spot. They consistently turned the puck over, and there was no back pressure on the third or fourth goal. Still, those were bad goals, especially coming on the heels of Adams' marker.
In the playoffs, the Caps discovered they have a talented young goalie in Varlamov, whom they selected in the first round of the 2006 draft. On Wednesday, if they had forgotten, he reminded them just how young and inexperienced he is. You can't pay for this kind of experience, though. If he's as good as some think he will be, he will learn from it. Clearly, the Pens targeted the top of the net. Hey, that wasn't hard to figure out. Varlamov is a strict drop-and-block butterfly goalie. Those types of goaltenders tend to be vulnerable up high. He'll have to work on that area during the offseason.
3. Penguins top defenseman Sergei Gonchar, outfitted with a sturdy brace on his right knee, returned to the ice for Game 7. He had missed the past two games after suffering a knee injury as a result of a nasty first-period Game 4 collision with Ovechkin. On the night, he managed 17 shifts, which added up to a modest 15 minutes, 6 seconds of ice time. That's modest by his standards. He usually averages between 25 to 30 minutes.
"I felt OK," Gonchar said after the game, still wearing the medical apparatus under his street clothes. "I didn't have any problem with the brace. I just had to get used to having it on all the time."
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma had felt good about Gonchar's chances to play after seeing him on the ice Tuesday morning. He just wanted to hear it from his star player.
"He told me he was confident he could play," Bylsma said. "He said he'd be ready to play a full game. The only question that we had was how the leg would respond after a night's sleep. But he was fine [Wednesday] morning, and he was ready to go."
Bylsma wisely continued with an 11-forward, seven-defensemen lineup, as Gonchar replaced rookie Alex Goligoski. That enabled him to spot Gonchar on the power play and in particular situations, and to double-shift top centers Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the fourth line. With the many TV timeouts and stoppages in a game, it's a great way to get your best players on the ice more often. It's a luxury that comes with having guys like Crosby and Malkin on your bench.
I did wonder, however, why Bylsma continued to play Gonchar in the final period with the game pretty well decided. The All-Star defender received four additional third-period shifts, which amounted to 3 minutes, 44 seconds. When asked, the coach said his staff was comfortable with it. Gonchar didn't have a problem with it, either. "I was fine," he said with a smile. "When you win, everything is fine." Yes, it is.
4. According to the official game sheet, Norris Trophy-nominated Capitals defenseman Mike Green had only one 43-second shift in the third period. On that shift, early in the final frame, the Caps turned the puck over and Crosby had a clean breakaway from the far blue line. You don't see that too often in a big game. Crosby took his time and slipped the puck through Theodore's 5-hole. That made the score 6-1. Green arrived at the net to assess the damage. At that point, Boudreau made his own assessment.
"He wasn't very good tonight," said Boudreau, explaining why he sat his star defender for the remainder of the game. "I know him pretty well. When he struggles, he puts a lot of extra pressure on himself. I just thought, at that point, it was better not to play him anymore."
It was a very tough playoff after a terrific regular season for Green, who was trying to play through a rib injury he had suffered late in the regular season. Through these 14 playoff games, he was a shell of himself. And he knew it. Still, this kid is an ultratalented young puck-mover. When he's right, he's a dynamic force from the blue line. He needs to be better in his own end. He can learn that. Green had a bad postseason. It happens. I wouldn't be so quick to bury him, though. He has rare talent.
One thing, though: Mike, lose the Mohawk!
5. If I had to sum up the Caps' night in one moment, it came at the 14:30 mark of the second period. Down 5-0, Ovechkin zeroed in on his old pal, Malkin, looking to deliver a big hit to stir the home crowd and maybe light an unlikely fire under his team. All too familiar with Ovie's ice-side manner, Malkin slid out of the way of the hit, leaving Ovechkin to level teammate Nicklas Backstrom. During the season, the two Caps made a habit of chest-bumping after victories. In this case, there was nothing to celebrate.