Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- In the NHL's battle of superstars, a 21-year-old rookie goalie stole the show. In the process, Simeon Varlamov also stole Game 1 for the Washington Capitals.
Varlamov came up with a career-high 34 saves, none more brilliant than the one he made with his stick on Sidney Crosby late in the second period, enabling the Capitals to beat the Penguins 3-2 in front of 18,277 screaming, red-clad fans at the Verizon Center who chanted "Varly, Varly, Varly" throughout the game.
"Goalies are taught to never give up," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You look at all the great goalies that are in hockey, and no matter where the play is, they never give up. They keep fighting. And, that's the only way the (Martin) Brodeurs, Tim Thomases and (Roberto) Luongos make great saves; it's because they never give up."
Boudreau is putting Varlamov into an elite class, but after Saturday he might very well belong there.
Barely five minutes after Varlamov misplayed defenseman Mark Eaton's point shot at 12:54 into the goal that made it 2-2, he came back with perhaps the best save of this year's playoffs.
Chris Kunitz sent a pass to Crosby on a 2-on-2 and Varlamov was caught at the left post. The net was wide-open as Crosby attempted to score what would have been the go-ahead goal -- but much to his surprise, Varlamov got his stick down on the goal line and stopped the puck from crossing with 1:59 to play in the second period.
"There was no other option left to me," Varlamov said through a Russian reporter acting as an interpreter. "I had to play it with my stick. There was nothing else I could do, and frankly if he put the puck anywhere it would be in the net, so I guess it was lucky."
Lucky equaled great this time. The save energized the Capitals, who after getting outplayed for much of the second period, scored the game-winner 1:46 into the third period and hung on for the victory.
"He gave us a chance to win the game," Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin said.
"It's a key save to make in the game," Fleury said. "I'm mad about that one."
As Alexander Semin, who wound up with two assists and now has 10 points in the playoffs, carried the puck in, Fleischmann darted to the net, splitting Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar.
Orpik never retreated and Semin passed to Backstrom, creating a 2-on-1 against Gonchar.
"I think it was just lost tracking, really," Orpik said.
Instead of shooting, Backstrom settled the puck and was able to get it past a diving Gonchar and onto Fleischmann's stick near the right side of the crease. Fleischmann's chip hit Fleury, but had enough on it to get past the prone goalie.
"I thought (Backstrom) was going to shoot, but I saw him holding it longer than he's used to so I just made sure I got open for him and he passed it," Fleischmann said. "I didn't even look at the goalie. It didn't sit well so I just had to chip it over his goal shaft."
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 4:09 into the game as Crosby scored his fifth of the playoffs on a wrist shot from between the circles. The Penguins outshot the Caps 7-1 through the first 10 minutes, quieting the sellout crowd.
"We knew they have a great crowd here and they (would) build off of that, but to get the first one (goal) on the road -- we were happy to set the tone," Crosby said. "We got the start we wanted and we'll look at that and try to do that again next game."
The good start didn't last much beyond the 10-minute mark. The Caps' third line of David Steckel, Matt Bradley and Brooks Laich teamed to make it 1-1 with 6:50 to play in the first. Steckel poked home a bad rebound left by Fleury before barreling into the goaltender.
Ovechkin gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead just 3:13 later when he scored what was basically an empty-net goal during a 5-on-3 advantage.
Backstrom fed the puck up to Semin, who was standing just below the Stanley Cup Playoffs logo in the Pittsburgh zone. Instead of shooting, Semin one-touched a pass to Ovechkin, who was alone at the bottom of the left circle. Fleury came out high to challenge Semin, leaving the left side of the net open for Ovechkin.
"I thought he was going to take the one-timer from up top," Fleury said of Semin.
Eaton made it 2-2 with 7:06 to play in the second when his unscreened floater from the right point got through Varlamov. However, thanks to Varlamov, the Penguins didn't score again despite getting 13 shots on goal in the third period.
"We had opportunities, chances to get some more goals," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "Their goaltender obviously made a huge save there with the empty net (in the second period). We didn't do enough to get the goals we needed to win."
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Tomas Fleischmann did the smart thing en route to scoring the Caps' third goal 1:46 into the third period. Fleischmann went to the net after coming into the zone onside, following Alexander Semin and the puck. He split Pittsburgh's defensemen, Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar, as Semin passed to Nicklas Backstrom, who was cutting into the left circle. Orpik stayed too high in the zone, creating a 2-on-1 with Backstrom and Fleischmann against Gonchar, who went sliding down to the ice as he attempted to block Backstrom's pass to Fleischmann. The pass got through and Fleischmann chipped the puck over goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's left shoulder. If he didn't go hard to the net, there would have been no chance for the 2-on-1 or the goal.
Caps' third-line center David Steckel had a monster game that will certainly be overshadowed in the storylines that follow by the superstars in the series. Steckel scored the Caps first goal at 13:50 of the first period by going hard to the net and punching home a rebound before barreling into Fleury. He really wound up being Fleury's worst nightmare as he constantly found himself in front of the Pens' goalie, disrupting his vision on numerous occasions. Steckel got 19:11 of ice time and won 65 percent (11-6) of his faceoffs. He was also credited with four takeaways and two hits. He was on the ice in the final minute after the Pens pulled Fleury and won a defensive zone faceoff with 31.8 seconds left.
Just over five minutes after giving up an awful goal to Mark Eaton that tied the game 2-2 with 7:06 left in the second period, Caps rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov came up with the best save of his NHL career so far to keep the game tied going into the second intermission. Stuck on the left post as Chris Kunitz sent a crossing pass to Sidney Crosby on a 2-on-1, Varlamov reached his stick back to stone No. 87, who thought he was redirecting Kunitz's pass into a wide-open net. Varlamov's stick arrived just in time to stop Crosby's shot with nary an inch to spare. They showed the save three times on the big video board above center ice.
The Penguins, who won 55.7 percent of the faceoffs in their six-game series against Philadelphia, continued to dominate at the dots until the third period. The Penguins were 28-14 (66.7 percent) after two periods, but just 4-14 in the third. Crosby, who turned into a faceoff ace in the first round, winning a League-best 99 of 156 (63.5 percent), won 11 of 16 (69 percent) through two periods, but just 1 of 6 in the third.
It didn't take long for the superstars to strut their stuff. Crosby scored his first goal of the series and his fifth of the playoffs just 4:09 into the game after getting a pretty backhanded pass while on the rush in the neutral zone from Bill Guerin. Crosby beat Varlamov below the glove on a wrist shot from between the circles. Alex Ovechkin answered with his fourth of the playoffs 17:03 into the first, giving the Caps a 2-1 lead on a 5-on-3 goal. Fleury came out high because he thought Semin was going to shoot from the area high between the circles, but Semin one-touched a pass to Ovechkin, who scored easily on the empty net from the lower left circle. Evgeni Malkin got his first point of the series with an assist on Eaton's second-period goal.
1 - 0 PIT
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 WSH
2 - 2 Tie