Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Game 3 Can Make or Break Series

The third chapter in the Capitals-Penguins series takes place tonight at Mellon Arena, and the result tonight could go a long way to determine if it's going to become a short story or a novel.

With a virtual must-win facing the Penguins tonight and a boisterous home crowd behind them, the Caps can expect Pittsburgh to come out flying and trying to get some goals early past Simeon Varlamov.

A win by the Pens and then they will get a chance to draw even Friday night with back-to-back games looming this weekend. But a Pittsburgh loss means the Pens would have to turn a trick not seen in the National Hockey League in 34 years in rallying from a 3-0 deficit when the 1975 Islanders rallied against this same Penguins franchise.

While comparisons are quickly drawn between this series and the Capitals' first-round deficit to the Rangers, there are some pretty marked differences so far.

First of all, New York finished with 13 fewer points than Washington, but the Rangers were able to utilize the trap to limit the Capitals chances' to the outside and Henrik Lundqvist did the rest in a pair of tight one-goal wins.

Now, the team with nine more points in the regular season is the one with the lead, and unless Pittsburgh decides to adopt a style they don't seem very interested in playing, they're going to just take their chances with a run-and-gun style that they'd have a hard time winning four of five games against an equally talented Caps team.

The Pens are getting good scoring chances on Varlamov, as unlike the Caps' previous series where they were only getting a handful of chances to put in the puck. Once the series opened up later in the series, the Caps thrived and were able to take advantage - in this round, the dam has already been breached with the teams trading good chances with high-risk plays.

Pittsburgh's problem against this team also has been it being unable to protect a lead all season long against the Capitals, with the Pens held leads over Washington in five of the six games, but just having a shootout win to show for it (in a game they lost a two-goal edge, no less). Part of that is Washington has dominated the third period against the Pens, outscoring them 12-2, and 3-1 so far in the third period of this series.

While New York was able to really clamp down with an early lead in two of their three wins, the Pens have gotten on the board first in both games, but weren't able to hold the Capitals at bay for more than a period.

For the Capitals, the memory of the Rangers series is keeping the team very focused on the task at hand, but in terms of overall hope for the Penguins, they can just rest on the knowledge they can play better - but so can the Caps.

Last year, this Penguins team was faced with an 0-2 deficit to the Wings after a pair of ugly losses, but were able to grab Game 3 at home - before losing Game 4.

While some are trying to raise the spectre of 1996 when Washington blew a 2-0 lead to Pittsburgh, that series also was a markedly different, as the Caps were a heavy underdog after finishing 13 points behind their opponent. After Washington stunned the Pens with two opening wins in Pittsburgh, the more talented Pens team began to take over as the series wore on.

And, of course, the only Capitals player from that series that's playing in this one is Sergei Gonchar - the anchor of the Pittsburgh defense this time around - and one that has been victimized by the Capitals a couple of times already this series.

But the Capitals can expect a desperate Penguins bunch tonight, and if they can survive the early onslaught and grab a win, it would mean the Caps take a huge step in returning to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.

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