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Varlamov Dazzling in Defeat

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In a game with few bright spots for Washington Capitals fan, Simeon Varlamov continued to shine.

Varly faced 42 shots on the night – many of them quality chances – and turned away all but 3. The Caps were outplayed and outworked most of the night, but the outstanding young Russian kept the Caps in the game, allowing them to force overtime, and ultimately, put themselves in position to steal a win.

History was not on their side last night. The Capitals have pulled out to a 2-0 lead in a best of seven series five times in franchise history. All five times, the Caps have gone on to lose game 3, and in all but one, they have gone on to lose the series. Notably, the series they did win, they won in 5 games en route to the Stanley Cup finals.

As for last night’s game, the scoring got started early for the Caps. Mike Green dumped the puck into the Penguins zone to facilitate a line change. Alex Ovechkin drove in on the forecheck as Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury left the crease to corral the puck, dropping his stick in the process. Somehow, the puck bounced off the boards out in front of the net, directly in front of a charging Ovechkin. Ovie had the whole goal to shoot at, and didn’t miss on a diving shot, past a diving Fleury.

Initially, it seemed to stun the Penguins, and Washington’s offense began to press, culminating in a wrap-around attempt by Nicklas Backstrom that slid across the crease past a wide-open net. From that point forward, the Penguins dominated the game, with the formula used in the regular season by teams like the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets to beat the Caps: an ultra-aggressive forecheck and relentless physicality. If not for the Caps’ 21-year-old netminder, this game could easily have been a blow-out.

The entire second period looked as if the Capitals were on the penalty kill. The Pens seemed to have possession of the puck for 70% of the period. When the Caps did get possession, they were lucky to get it out of their own zone, let alone create quality chances.

On top of the offensive woes, the Caps couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. It seemed every time Evgeni Malkin touched the puck, the Caps were called for a penalty. The Penguins had six straight power plays, and again, Varlamov was there to save the day, stopping point blank shots, making diving saves and frustrating the fired up Pens at every turn. His magic ran out in the sixth, after Alexander Semin was called for hooking, as Evgeni Malkin, who dominated the Capitals all evening, finally found the back of the net.

The Capitals finally got their chance with the man advantage for the second time with just under two minutes to play in the third period, and boy did they take advantage. Caps sophomore Nicklas Backstrom made up for his earlier miss with a goal off the back of Fleury, and just like that, the Caps found themselves tied at 2, in a game that could easily have been 6-1 at that point.

The Caps came to life, and had several quality chances in the last two minutes of regulation, and in overtime, Ovechkin had two quality chances within seconds of each other, but fanned on one and lost the puck on the other.

Unfortunately for Simeon, at 11:23 of the first OT, he made a stop on a full-court pass that just missed a driving Malkin, and the ensuing face-off was his undoing. In a play eerily similar to the one Ovechkin scored his second goal of game 2, Sidney Crosby beat David Steckel on the face off for only the third time all evening. The puck trickled back to Mark Eaton, who sent a cross-ice pass to the waiting Kris Letang. Letang, who had fanned on two quality chances of his own in OT, nailed this one. The puck careened off of defenseman Shaonne Morrisson over the glove of Varlamov, off the cross bar and in to end game 3.

As mentioned before, the Capitals have had little success in series in which they hold a 2-0 lead, but as the history of this post-season has shown, the Caps are routinely re-writing their history. Hopefully the boys in red, white and blue will come back for game 4 a little more fired up and continue to distinguish themselves from previous Caps teams, en route to the finals. For now though, they need to focus on game 4.

There’s a pretty good chance that Bruce Boudreau is telling his team that at this very moment. That, and telling George McPhee to sign Varlamov for a long, long time.

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Capital Investments Paying Off

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There a plenty of great things happening for the Washington Capitals right now. Take last night for instance. The Great Eight Alex Ovechkin scored number 50, making him only the third NHL player in history to score more at least 50 goals in three of his first four NHL seasons. The other two you may have heard of: Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy. If you are a forward in the NHL, you’d be hard pressed to find two better guys to be included on a list with. With a little less historical significance, that 50 is tops in the league.

Tops in the league in goals by a defensemen is Mike Green, who scored numbers 26 and 27 last night in the Capitals 5-2 victory over Tamba Bay (the 9th straight victory by the Capitals over the Bolts, by the way). This victory pushed the Caps back into the second overall position in the East.

While these are huge stories for the Capitals, the biggest story is a little bit more big picture and not quite so evident unless you’re looking for it, and that is the phenomenal job General Manager George McPhee has done building this team. The Caps are Rocking the Red this season, and as a Caps fan, I couldn’t be happier, but the real story is that this team is built to be a perennial contender; this team is built to withstand injuries and attrition.

This season, this fact has really come to the forefront. Last night, Quintin Laing became the 15th Hershey Bear to be recalled to the Big Club to fill in for an injured starter, and like the other 15, he stepped in and stepped up. Boyd Gordon is out 2-3 weeks with a broken finger, and, like we have seen time and time again, McPhee had a player waiting in the wings that played the same type of game, possesses the same skill set, and the Caps kept on rolling.

Last week, it was more of the same. Sergei Federov falls ill, and Keith Aucoin stepped in and the Caps didn’t miss a beat. Brent Johnson goes down, Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are there to pick up the pieces. This team is ripe with talent at all levels, and will be contenders for a long time to come. Its been awhile since Capitals fans could be so excited about the state of the franchise and the possibilities on the horizon. Thanks to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis, that time is now and for the foreseeable future.

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