Friday, May 8, 2009

Will Penguins Ride Momentum in Game 5?

Thanks to the quirk in the scheduling for the Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Penguins get to deliver a two-game swing in two days if they can manage to earn the first road win in the series Saturday night in Washington.

While the Capitals were able to generate some good chances during their two games in Washington, their offense was largely absent in Pittsburgh, taking just 46 shots and scoring five goals in 131 minutes of hockey at Mellon Arena.

Once again, the Caps didn't really challenge Marc-Andre Fleury enough, even after getting a soft goal early on the netminder, but Fleury wasn't challenged often enough despite giving up some rebounds. Chris Clark was able to take advantage of a rebound of a Mike Green shot in the second period, but there wasn't enough crashing the net or quality chances to really climb back from an early two-goal deficit.

One interesting aspect for Saturday night will be the status of Sergei Gonchar, who was injured in the first period in a collision with Alex Ovechkin, and forced the other Penguins' defensemen to log some long ice time on Friday. This certainly could come into play as the Caps will look to turn on their speed on home ice and will have the last change to give them more of a chance to create space with some fatigued defensemen.

If Gonchar can't play, he will be missed on the power-play, as the ex-Capital registered a goal on the extra-man before leaving the contest - Pittsburgh's only man-advantage tally in six tries.

For the third time in four games, the Pens did come away with the power-play advantage, earning six to Washington's four, and now Pittsburgh has a 23-11 advantage in the series in that department. While the Caps' penalty-killing has been good - even earning a short-handed goal from Milan Jurcina Friday - the extra time short is hurting the Capitals, especially when having to play from behind.

But all season long, the Capitals have refused to make life easy on themselves, playing their best hockey with their backs against the wall. These two games were no exception, as with a chance to earn the third win in the series to be able to close it out at home, Washington appeared sluggish and allowed the Penguins to dictate the play instead of coming out aggressively against Pittsburgh.

Now, with the game on home ice, Washington will need to put together a better effort to avoid having to fight off elimination in Game 6 Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Of course, the last three playoff series for Washington, the Caps are 0-3 in Game 4s, having come home and being able to earn a pair of wins in Game 5s after some disheartening performances in Philadelphia and New York. They're going to need to do it again, as if they can't shake out of their funk Saturday night, they then will carry a three-game skid into Pittsburgh and needing to rely that they can improve on their 5-1 record when facing elimination over the past two seasons.

They also will have to hear about the trio of Caps squads in the past that have squandered two-game series leads - especially if they cannot pull out a win in Game 5 - even though the only player involved in those series is the injured Gonchar, who was part of the 1996 team that lost a 2-0 edge in four straight.

After the game, Bruce Boudreau also indicated that Simeon Varlamov will play his first back-to-back game in the NHL Saturday night, even though the Russian has shown fatigue the day after games in the past. For the first time in his 10-game playoff career, the 21-year-old looked ordinary, making some good stops but also yielding some stoppable goals - and ones that really dug the Capitals into a hole they couldn't climb out of.

Overall, the Capitals didn't put together too much good hockey in Pittsburgh, as while Nicklas Backstrom was able to get on track with a pair of goals in two games, Ovechkin also didn't really have a pair of games to remember, only earning a gift goal in Game 3 and an assist in Game 4. Green, although earning an assist on Clark's goal, and Alexander Semin also will need to get going to help out offensively to give Ovechkin some help, and also having the last change will help get some more favorable matchups for Washington.

But, while the Caps aren't quite up against the wall yet, they will need to earn a victory on home ice Saturday after a quick turnaround to avoid needing another improbable comeback to advance further in the Stanley Cup playoffs

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