Saturday, May 2, 2009

Varlamov, Capitals Grab Game 1

While the hype about coming into this Eastern Conference semifinal was all about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, it was Tomas Fleischmann and Simeon Varlamov who helped Washington grab the opener with a 3-2 win at Verizon Center.

The rookie Capitals netminder made 34 saves - including a spectacular stick save on Crosby late in the second period - and Fleischmann converted a nice pass from Alexander Semin 1:46 into the third period for the difference as Washington held off Pittsburgh for a 1-0 series win.

Crosby did get the Penguins on the board in the first period, with a shot over Varlamov's glove just 4:09 into the game. The Caps did get a couple of good chances early on, but weren't able to break through Marc-Andre Fleury until David Steckel poked home a rebound of a Matt Bradley shot with 6:10 left in the period, bringing the sellout crowd of 18,277 to its feet.

Thanks to a pair of ex-Capitals, Washington got a chance to take the lead, as Sergei Gonchar was whistled for delay-of-game with 4:46 left in the period, and then Matt Cooke was penalized for hooking Ovechkin just 1:01 later for a two-man advantage.

Ovechkin was able to cash in for his third goal of the playoffs, burying a nice feed from Semin past Fleury for a 2-1 lead with 2:57 left in the frame.

The Capitals held the lead into the first intermission, and then looked like they might build upon it in early in the second, but Fleury held his ground, and the ice started to tilt the other way in the second half of the period.

Varlamov was strong with a couple of good stops, but misjudged a Mark Eaton shot from long-range to bring the Penguins even with 7:06 left in the period. From there, the Pens started to bottle up the Capitals in their own end, but despite letting in a bad goal, Varlamov came up with a tremendous save to make up for it.

Pittsburgh's best chance to take the lead came with just over two minutes left in the period, when Crosby was able to take a Chris Kunitz pass and almost beat Varlamov, before the goalie turned and just got the puck with the corner of his stick before it crossed the goal line for his best save of the playoffs so far.

After the game, Boudreau couldn't say enough about Varlamov's stop.

"It was a great save," he said. "There's no doubt. Goalies are taught never to give up. You look at all the great goalies that are in hockey nowadays. No matter where the play is, they never give up. You keep fighting. And that's the only way the [Martin] Brodeurs, the Tim Thomases and the [Roberto] Luongos look like they would make great saves, it's because they never quit on the puck. ... It was obviously a turning point because they would have had the lead and we would have had to play catch-up."

The Pens were denied take the lead, and once the third period started, the Caps got the difference as Fleischmann tapped in a Semin pass that went under a diving Gonchar's stick with 18:14 left in regulation, and the Capitals then looked to hold off the potent Pittsburgh attack.

Washington didn't make it easy on itself, taking a pair of minor penalties in the period, but the Caps held, and despite being outshot 13-6 in the frame, they held on for the 3-2 win.

The Capitals hadn't taken an early series lead since beating Philadelphia in Game 1 of last year's conference quarterfinal matchup - and dropped the next three games - and now will look to build upon the lead rather than letting the Penguins draw even Monday night.

Washington also now is 4-0-1 against the Pens this season, only losing a shootout back in March in five meetings.

Likewise, the Penguins hadn't lost a Game 1 to an Eastern Conference foe since getting swept by the Ottawa Senators in 2007 - in fact, all three of their early series last year Pittsburgh took 3-0 leads in every round, and they took a 2-0 lead on Philadelphia in the last round. The last time the Pens lost Game 1 was in the Stanley Cup Final, where Detroit won the series in six games.

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