What we've learned from Caps, Pens
PITTSBURGH -- It was "catch your breath" day in the Pittsburgh-Washington Eastern Conference semifinals series.
Players from both teams had the day off and only the respective coaches, the Penguins' Dan Bylsma and the Capitals' Bruce Boudreau, were made available to the media. With good reason. This series has gone at a breakneck pace and has included two overtime games and contests played on back-to-back nights. The Penguins lead the series 3-2 by virtue of their overtime win Saturday and can close out the Caps on Monday night.
Here are a few thoughts that occurred to us as we made the four-hour drive from Washington to Pittsburgh on Mother's Day:
• We have been impressed with Bylsma's ability to adjust on the fly. The rookie coach has shown a nice sense of what moves to make and when. He gave Petr Sykora time to get back into form and then moved Maxime Talbot onto the team's second line with Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko when it was clear Sykora wasn't going to cut it.
Bylsma used Miroslav Satan sparingly to start, but as the forward seemed to grow more comfortable, Bylsma has used him in more important situations, including some second power-play unit time. Satan has assisted on two big goals in the past two games.
We also thought it was an interesting decision to go with just 11 forwards and use seven defensemen in the absence of the injured Sergei Gonchar in Game 5. Rookie blueliner Alex Goligoski looked like a deer in headlights for most of the night and Bylsma clearly wanted a safety net in the form of veteran Philippe Boucher so he didn't get caught short on the blue line. Although it meant double-shifting his centers with Pascal Dupuis in the press box, it's hard to argue with the logic in the wake of the big win.
Speaking of Gonchar, Bylsma said Sunday his top defenseman continues to be examined by physicians and hoped to see him on the ice Monday. It seems unlikely, although we will remind readers we at no point have ever been licensed to practice medicine anywhere at any time.
• There isn't much doubt about the intestinal fortitude of Capitals rookie netminder Simeon Varlamov, who looked rugged in the Caps' 5-3 loss in Game 4, but was rock solid in Game 5's 4-3 overtime loss. Not sure you can fault Varlamov on any of Saturday's goals; he was under regular siege from the midpoint of the first period on. He ultimately stopped 38 of 42 shots directed at him, and if the Caps are going to get back in this series, they'll need Varlamov to continue his revelatory play.
• Earlier in the series, there was much grumbling in the media about a couple of off nights from Malkin, who responded with a monster effort in Game 3 and followed that with another big night in Game 5 by scoring the overtime winner (yeah, we know, it went off Tom Poti's stick; get over it).
Now, there are similar grumblings about the relatively anonymous performance being turned in by the Alex in Washington: Alexander Semin. You'll remember Semin as the man who made headlines earlier this season, reportedly asking rhetorically in the Russian media why there was such a fuss over Sidney Crosby. We trust Crosby's play in this postseason has answered those questions for Semin, who has not scored in the series and is a minus-5. He also managed no points and just one shot in Game 5.
Given that the Caps' scoring depth has gone dry during in three straight losses to the Penguins, it behooves Semin to elevate his game (he had 79 points and was a plus-25 in 62 games in the regular season). Semin has collected four assists in this series, but as the games have come to mean more, he has been less relevant, which puts additional pressure on Alex Ovechkin to score.
• We ran into Capitals owner Ted Leonsis in the hallway at Verizon Center after Saturday's game. He said the Caps haven't had a power play in overtime in a decade. The Caps' crack PR staff later told us Washington did have an overtime power-play chance in 2003, but did not score.
No one was really disputing the call that led to Malkin's overtime winner Saturday, even if it really was Sergei Fedorov who tripped Malkin, and not Milan Jurcina, who was whistled for the penalty as the Penguins forward broke down the middle of the ice toward the Caps' goal. Well, maybe it did matter. Fedorov was on the ice at the tail end of the subsequent penalty kill and couldn't turn with Malkin as the big center swept around Fedorov and headed for the net, forcing Poti to try and block the fateful pass that ended up in the net.
Both overtime victories in this series have deflected off Capitals players. The Capitals have had just one overtime playoff win since 1998 and that was back in 2001, when Jeff Halpern beat the Penguins in Game 4 of a series won by Pittsburgh. Since the Halpern goal, the Caps have lost seven straight overtime games.
• Washington tough guy Donald Brashear is eligible to play in Game 6 now that his six-game suspension for a couple of transgressions against the New York Rangers in the first round has come to an end. Still, don't expect to see the big man in the lineup with the Caps' playoff lives on the line. This series is too fast for a player who plays limited minutes when he's in the lineup and has missed the past six games. Plus, the last thing the Caps need is to give the Penguins any more power-play time.
• One of the reasons Game 5 was so brilliant was the discipline showed by both teams. Hard-hitting, but with only four minor penalties called the entire time, and one of those was in overtime (see above). The problem for the Capitals is playing 5-on-5 for long periods of time doesn't necessarily play to their strengths. The Penguins have outshot them in every game and have dictated the pace and puck possession for long periods of time during 5-on-5 play. The Capitals have managed to score a power-play goal in four of five games, but never more than one, which is also a bit of a problem. The Penguins' power play isn't exactly cooking, either, but they have had almost twice the number of opportunities as the Caps (15-8 over the past three games).
• It must annoy coaches like Boudreau when the media trot out statistics from past series as though they might have some bearing on the current situation. Unless, of course, those stats suggest a positive take on a dire situation. For instance, the Caps are 6-1 in "must-win" situations the past two seasons, including Game 82 last season, which they needed to win to qualify for the playoffs. Once they got in, they were down 3-1 to the Flyers in the first round and forced a seventh game, which they lost in overtime. They were down 3-1 to the New York Rangers in the first round this spring and, of course, won three in a row to advance to the second round.
Is that any more or less relevant than the fact the Caps have historically failed to close the deal in the playoffs, especially when playing the Penguins? The Pens own a 6-1 lifetime advantage in playoff matchups with the Capitals. In three of those series, the Capitals at one point enjoyed a 2-0 or 3-1 series lead and lost. Washington, of course, led this current series 2-0. Cue "The Twilight Zone" music.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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