Game 7? Perfect end for perfect series
PITTSBURGH -- And so, the perfect matchup becomes the perfect series.
As if it could end any other way.
As if there could be any other way to decide this Eastern Conference semifinal between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins other than to play a seventh and deciding game Wednesday night after grinder-turned-hero David Steckel tipped home a Brooks Laich shot 6:22 into the first overtime session to give the Capitals a 5-4 victory Monday.
Excitement? Washington coach Bruce Boudreau leapt straight into the air when the goal was scored.
"Just an 8-inch vertical leap," a red-faced Boudreau said of his emotions when Steckel's deflection found its way past Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Caps their first road win in the series.
"I was pretty excited," Boudreau said. "It's getting higher. Each game that's more important, the leap gets a little higher."
On a night when the Penguins could not put the Caps away despite a monumental edge in chances in the first period, when they outshot Washington 18-5, it seemed as though this finish was fated.
"I would have liked that period to keep going. Skip the intermission," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
If the hockey gods weren't interested in prolonging this series as long as possible, how else to explain the sudden emergence of Viktor Kozlov, a 6-foot-5 ghost in this series? Kozlov scored two huge goals for the Caps on Monday, the first tying the score at 1 after that lopsided first period and the second giving the Caps a 4-3 lead.
The goals were the first of the series for the veteran Russian.
"It's funny, I said at the beginning, 'Geez, I don't think he has it,'" Boudreau said. "But he's got such a great shot. Once he scored the one, you knew he had a little bit of confidence. We all wish he would shoot more because he's got such a great shot. Him getting two goals, he's such a quiet gentleman, he's another guy you're just really, really happy for."
Here's the small view of the minor classic we will come to know as Game 6.
This was a night when the stars once again delivered the goods with Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for one goal and seven assists. It was likewise a night when the foot soldiers and the missing in action made the difference. Players like Kozlov and Alexander Semin, who had his finest game of the series after being a nonfactor since early in the series, provided just enough to keep the Capitals' season alive. Tomas Fleischmann, who scored the game-winner in Game 1 and hadn't scored since, also had a goal for the Caps.
And then, there was the hero, Steckel, who missed an open net early in overtime in Game 5 and had to watch as Malkin won it for Pittsburgh moments later.
"I was really down after that," Steckel said late Monday night. "It was right there. I told myself if I had another chance, I wouldn't miss."
Steckel also took a slashing penalty early in the third period when he chopped Mark Eaton's stick in half. Nine seconds later, Kris Letang scored to give the Pens a 3-2 lead.
"Steckel, he's been with me for five years now," Boudreau said. "He's a big-game guy. When he took the penalty and they scored the goal, he just kept saying on the bench, 'Get one back for me, get one back for me.' He's so into the team. He thought, at that point, that he'd them down and he ended up getting the winning goal, so it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."
Here's the big view of Game 6 and, by extension, Game 7.
"I was telling a couple of people after the game, this is so good for our game, when the best players can shine on a bright stage like this. I just wish it was for the Cup," Boudreau said.
The Penguins scored to take the lead or tie the game four times Monday night. The Caps scored to tie or take the lead five times.
"There was a lot of talk before the series. It's everything it was made up to be," Crosby said. "Let's just say we're all not surprised that it's going seven."
Bylsma said he would leave handing the series its "classic" title to the media and maybe history, but he understands the drama in which he's taking part.
"It's hard not to watch what's happening and watch it unfold and see the story line tonight -- back and forth, great players making big plays, teams answering and grabbing momentum, and tying it up late and overtime goals," Bylsma said.
The longer this series has gone on, the more compelling the games have been.
Neither team has flinched, no matter how easy it would have been to do so.
The Caps had to kill off a penalty in the last two minutes of regulation on a night when the Penguins' power play had already scored twice. They had to overcome a tying goal by Crosby with just 4:08 left in regulation.
"We might not win, but we're going to go down fighting," Boudreau said. "I mean, they never quit. You'll see by the time they get on the plane, they'll be all business again. Allow them the 45 minutes or an hour to really enjoy and soak this in. It's been a long time since we won an overtime game in Pittsburgh, or even prolonged a series when Pittsburgh was able to beat us. We've been hearing about it for the last two days pretty constant, so for those guys in the room, it was a pretty nice feeling."
Nothing in this series has been constrained by pattern or logic.
The Penguins scored the first goal Monday, which now means the team scoring first has lost five of six games in the series. That's just plain wacky. The Penguins have outshot the Capitals in six straight games and we are still tied at 3. The Penguins won the special-teams battle in Game 6, scoring twice on five attempts, and still lost.
Ovechkin suggested the Penguins will be tired after losing such a tough game at home.
"Right now, we feel more energy and more excitement than Pittsburgh," Ovechkin said. "We're going to be flying out there, too."
And it all makes sense. Except nothing in this series for the ages can be put into any kind of neat compartment, and therein lies its greatness.
And so, we hold our collective breath and see how this one will end, knowing only one thing with relative certainty, that it will end dramatically.
As it should. As if there were any other way it could.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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