Penguins save best for last
Billed as the ultimate showdown between superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals ended up being no contest at all.
Crosby chalked up two goals and one assist as the Penguins whipped the Capitals 6-2 in the decisive game of their Eastern Conference semifinal at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night.
"He won't say he likes [being] front and centre, the big stage or anything like that," Penguins forward Bill Guerin told CBC Sports. "But he really knows how to perform in it."
Pittsburgh clinched the best-of-seven series 4-3, and will face either the Boston Bruins or Carolina Hurricanes in the conference final.
A sudden-death showdown between the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET) will determine who meets the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference final.
It was a surprisingly lopsided conclusion to an otherwise thrilling series that, from the drop of the first puck, dripped with drama and featured charismatic players and its share of offensive fireworks and controversial moments.
But the fact is Pittsburgh has dominated Washington in the post-season, winning seven of eight series overall — the lone blemish being a six-game loss to the Capitals in the 1994 conference quarter-finals.
"It certainly wasn't the way I would have envisioned it," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Whether we won or lost, I never would have thought that we would have ended up in a game like it was tonight."
It was a command performance by Crosby, who was constantly compared to Ovechkin — in much the same manner Penguins owner Mario Lemieux was stacked up against Wayne Gretzky.
"There were a lot of eyes on the series," Crosby told CBC Sports. "It feels good, just because of the way the series went, not particularly because it was me and him."
"He can elevate his game on a big stage like this," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said of Crosby, who finished with eight goals and 13 points in the series.
"He works tirelessly on his game. He really enjoys competition and laying it on the line.
"You play the game to lay it on the line and he is prepared for it, He has got a steely resolve when the time comes around."
Craig Adams, Guerin, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal also scored and Marc-Andre Fleury made 19 saves for the fourth-ranked Penguins.
Miroslav Satan provided two assists, and Sergei Gonchar had one assist in his return to the lineup following a two-game absence.
Gonchar, a highly regarded defenceman with 10 points in 11 games, suffered a knee injury in a collision with Ovechkin in Game 4.
Ovechkin and Brooks Laich scored for the second-seeded Capitals.
"It just hurts," Ovechkin said, referring to the loss and not his tender groin.
Simeon Varlamov yielded four goals on 18 shots before being yanked in favour of former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore, who faced 12 shots.
Varlamov kept the Capitals in contention with several solid saves in the first period, notably a left pad stop on Satan, but the rookie netminder looked weak on Pittsburgh's third and fourth goals early in the second.
"We spent an awful lot emotionally winning Game 6," Boudreau said. "The shots early on were close."
'It allows you to calm down a little'
Pittsburgh outshot Washington 16-5 in the first period, but the Capitals had the better chances at the outset.
Ovechkin had a splendid opportunity to open the scoring three minutes into the contest as he collected the puck off the side boards and sped past the defence for a breakaway, but Fleury foiled him with a flashy glove save.
Two minutes later, Fleury held firm as Tomas Fleischman knocked Penguins rearguard Mark Eaton off the puck and stepped out from the corner to rip a shot from point-blank range.
"That sends your team a message right away," Crosby said. "It allows you to calm down a little."
Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead at the 12:36 mark, with Capitals defenceman Shaone Morrisonn serving a slashing penalty for a forceful chop on Ruslan Fedotenko.
Gonchar took an off-balance shot that banked off a skate directly to Crosby, who had snuck behind Capitals defenceman Tom Poti at the left post.
Crosby calmly kicked the puck up to his stick and whisked it into the net for a power-play goal, his 11th of the post-season.
Only eight seconds later, Penguins blue-liner Brooks Orpik chipped the puck up ice to Fedotenko and he slid a long pass through the slot to Adams, who scored his first of the playoffs on a wrist shot to the short side.
"We were lucky to get that early lead and, from there, able to dictate play for the rest of the contest," Bylsma said.
"We took two penalties and, when you don't give your best guys a chance and people are standing around, it will cost you," Boudreau explained. "It was a good first period until that point."
Morrisonn's inability to corral a chip-in led to Pittsburgh's third goal 28 seconds into the second period as Crosby turned back and set up Guerin's fifth on a blast from just inside the blue-line.
Evgeni Malkin then passed the puck the width of the ice to Letang, who ended Varlamov's evening with his third goal on a rising slapshot to the glove side at 2:12.
"After the third goal, I was thinking of pulling him because he looked really dejected," Boudreau said. "After the fourth goal, the wind completely came out of his sails."
Theodore replaced the rattled rookie, and surrendered Staal's second on a creative give-and-go with Satan at 11:37.
"We wanted to make sure we were pressuring the puck in all situations and we did that," Bylsma said.
Ovechkin put the Capitals on the board with 1:51 left in the period, pouncing on Fleury's failed clearing attempt and notching his 11th goal on a wraparound.
"Even with the lead we had, with the dangerous forwards they have, we weren't relaxed for a second out there," Crosby said.
Twenty-six seconds into the third period, Laich was penalized four minutes for clipping Crosby in the face with a high stick, and the Penguins captain scored a breakaway goal on the subsequent power play at 2:02.
Laich later poked a loose puck past Fleury to complete the scoring with 13:24 remaining.
"It is a tough pill to swallow," Laich said. "We did a lot of good things this year.
"But this game tonight is how this season is going to be remembered and it is a shame. They were more composed with the puck and the reason they won the game is they outworked us.
"It is not easy to say that we were outworked in our building in a Game 7. We're going to have to think about that for a long time."
With files from The Associated Press