Pens Capitalize on disappearing act

Alex Ovechkin disappeared, at least as much as the game’s most dominant scorer can, and so did all the magic Simeon Varlamov was working.

Washington Capital Alex Ovechkin is tripped by Pittsburgh Penguin Chris Kunitz during the Penguins 5-3 win on Friday.

Penguins 5 Capitals 3

PITTSBURGH — Alex Ovechkin disappeared, at least as much as the game’s most dominant scorer can, and so did all the magic Simeon Varlamov was working.

Suddenly, the Washington Capitals are in a familiar position against rival Pittsburgh, losing their grip on a playoff series that seemed to be theirs.

The Penguins shook off an opening-minute Washington goal, scored three times in less than 12 minutes in the first period against a suddenly vulnerable Varlamov and beat the Capitals 5-3 Friday night to even the Eastern Conference semifinal at 2.

The Capitals won’t get much time to try to regain any confidence they lost up by losing twice in Pittsburgh, not with Game 5 in Washington on Saturday night.

“We’re right back in it and we have momentum on our side and we’ll try to keep it going,” said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 19 saves.

Washington scored one-goal victories at home in each of the first two games as Ovechkin scored a combined four goals, but he was shut out on two shots while being constantly shadowed by defenceman Rob Scuderi.

Penguins star Sidney Crosby had his playoffs-leading ninth goal and an assist.

“They were desperate down here,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Alex is only human, he can’t be unbelievable every night. He’s a great player, he just had one of those nights where he’s not going to get three goals.”

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is unhappy at playing twice in two nights in two cities, all because of a Yanni concert in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

He may be even more concerned with the Capitals’ first major letdown in the series, an opening period in which Washington’s one-goal lead quickly became a two-goal deficit as Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko scored.

Now, the Penguins again could do what they did against the Capitals in 1992 and 1996 by rallying to win after being down 2-0 in a series.

Pittsburgh has a major worry, though, as Gonchar was helped off the ice late in the first period after absorbing a knee-on-knee hit from Ovechkin.

There was no immediate word about the injury, or how long it would sideline the Penguins’ most experienced defenseman, who missed three-quarters of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

“I mean, you can run guys, guys are fair game, but the guy (Ovechkin) takes strides every time and leaves his feet a lot of times, too,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “To us, we got the feeling he’s really trying to hurt guys at times.”

Ovechkin denied during a post-game talk with Penguins star Evgeni Malkin’s father that the hit on his former Russian Olympic teammate was dirty.

“Yeah, it probably was knee on knee — I tried to hit him with my shoulder and he just moved left (into) the same spot,” Ovechkin said.

Asked if he’s worried about a fine or suspension, Ovechkin said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I didn’t want to hit him. I wanted to hit him, but I don’t want hurt him, especially knee on knee.”

Varlamov came in with a 1.64 goals-against average despite having only six games of NHL experience, but could be seen shaking his head at his inability to stop not-difficult shots.

Varlamov, arguably the best player on the ice while making 39 saves during Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime win in Game 3, probably couldn’t be blamed for Guerin’s go-ahead goal on a rebound of Crosby’s in-close forehander midway through the period.

But the 21-year-old goalie had a good look on Gonchar’s tying goal from close to the blue line, which came slightly more than 3 minutes after Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom scored with 36 seconds gone.

Maybe that was a bad omen for the Capitals, since the team scoring first has lost all four games in the series.

A much-worse omen came when Sergei Fedorov couldn’t score on two excellent scoring chances not long after Gonchar’s goal, and Varlamov began looking shaky.

He was beaten on a seemingly harmless 50-foot wrist shot that Fedotenko was trying to throw on net at 15:25 of the first, making it 3-1.

“There were four soft goals out of the five,” Boudreau said. “But he’ll bounce back. He’s a real competitive guy.”

The Capitals twice came back from two-goal deficits on goals by Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina, with Jurcina scoring short-haned. But the Penguins answered as Crosby and Max Talbot each scored in the third period. Crosby has nine playoff goals, one more than Ovechkin.

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