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Pens Drop Game 1 in Washington

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
WASHINGTON -- Sidney Crosby got a goal. So did Alex Ovechkin. But Tomas Fleischmann got the biggest one.

Fleischmann scored 1:46 into the third period to break a 2-2 tie as the Washington Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 on Saturday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.

Crosby scored the game's first goal, giving the Penguins an early lead. Ovechkin connected later in the period, giving Washington a 2-1 advantage.

But Fleischmann put the Caps ahead to stay when he wound up all alone in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and chipped a pass from Alexander Semin off the goaltender and into the net, triggering an eruption from 18,277 red-clad fans at the Verizon Center.

Rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov made 34 saves -- the best one on Crosby with his stick late in the second period, preventing what looked like a certain goal. He was also superb after Fleischmann's goal, as the Penguins flooded the Caps' zone for most of the last 15 minutes and outshot Washington 13-6 in the final period.

Game 2 is Monday night in Washington before the series shifts to Pittsburgh for games Wednesday and Friday.

The Penguins came out playing at a faster tempo than the Caps, who looked sluggish, and needed just 4:08 to take the lead.

Bill Guerin made the play on the right boards at the red line, feeding Crosby as the Pittsburgh raced through the neutral zone. When Semin turned away from the puck at the Caps' blue, Crosby essentially wound up with a 2-on-1, with only defenseman Brian Pothier back. 

Crosby raced into the zone, moved from the right to the middle and shot back to the right side from about 20 feet, beating Varlamov past the glove for his fifth goal of the playoffs.

The Penguins continued to dominate through the first half of the period, keeping the Caps shotless until Fleischmann got one on goal 9:16 into the game. Pittsburgh kept Ovechkin without a shot on goal until 9:24 remained in the first period.

But a mistake by Fleury got the Caps even and changed the momentum.

Matt Bradley carried down the right side in the Pittsburgh zone. Just before reaching the goal line, he slung a shot on goal that Fleury carelessly kicked out into the slot. Checking center Dave Steckel beat Evgeni Malkin to the front of the net and banged the puck into the open right side at 13:50, tying the game at 1-1.

Washington then got a power play when Sergei Gonchar flipped the puck into the crowd for a delay of game penalty at 15:14. Ovechkin drilled a post about 40 seconds into the power play, flattened Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke five seconds later, then drew a penalty from Cooke for hooking at 16:15, giving Washington a two-man advantage for 59 seconds.

The Caps quickly made Pittsburgh pay when Ovechkin finished off a nice rotation passing play by blasting a shot from the lower left circle behind Fleury for a 2-1 lead. Semin controlled the puck at in the high slot, and with Brooks Laich and Semin drawing the defense to the front of the net, Ovechkin had plenty of time and space to rip a perfect pass behind a helpless Fleury for a 2-1 lead.

Crosby finished the period with three shots on goal, while Ovechkin had two -- plus two more than were blocked and the one that hit the post.

The Caps carried the play for the first half of the second period. Ovechkin drilled another post just over two minutes into the period and had a couple of other excellent chances that were stopped by Fleury, who was sharp.

Malkin, who's taken a back seat in all the Crosby-Ovechkin hype, made the play that led to the game-tying goal at 12:50. The NHL's regular-season scoring leader carried into the Washington zone and left a back pass for defenseman Mark Eaton, who had been denied by Varlamov on a fine stop four minutes earlier. Eaton's shot from the right point was a lot easier than that one, but it sailed past the rookie goaltender for the tying goal.

But Varlamov more than made up for that one by making the save of the game on Crosby with 2:00 left in the period. Crosby raced into the Washington zone with Chris Kunitz, who fed him a perfect pass. Crosby appeared to have a wide-open net for what would have been the go-ahead goal, only to see Varlamov get his stick on the shot just as it was ready to cross the goal line.

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.
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