Pens surge, even series; ‘Canes roll, Bruins on the brink

Sean Leahy

Now it's down to a best of three. After giving the hockey world a scare through the first two games thinking things might end a tad bit earlier than expected, the Penguins-Capitals series is now heading down the home stretch and positioning itself for a monumental finish. Before Game Five finds us tonight, several questions will linger from Pittsburgh's 5-3 victory:

What is the status of Sergei Gonchar(notes)?

The knee-on-knee hit put Alex Ovechkin in the box for two minutes, but the debate is already ensuing whether or not it should have been a major. Judge for yourself:

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review doesn't see any potential punishment for Ovechkin:

"From this vantage point, it looked like Ovechkin turned his skate and stuck out his right knee. It should have merited more than a minor -- and if it was going to net only a minor, it should have been for kneeing, not tripping.

But was it any more an intent to injure than Penguins winger Chris Kunitz(notes) crosschecking Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov(notes) in the mask in Game 3?

Kunitz was fined, not suspended. Ovechkin will, at worst, get the same treatment.

Surely, you don't expect the NHL to suspend one of the two marquee names from perhaps the most highly publicized and anticipated series in league history."

After the game, Ovechkin defended the hit, saying he led with his shoulder:

"It tried to hit him and he tried to move to his left, and I don't have time to realize what is going on and I hit [him with] my knee," Ovechkin said. "It was accident. I'm not the kind of guy who wants to injure a player like this, especially [because] I know Gonch. I tried to hit him with my shoulder and he moved left but his legs were in the same spot."

No word yet on whether or not Gonchar will play tonight, but Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said the Penguins defenseman could have came back to play in Game Four, but he was held out for pre-cautionary reasons. Encouraging words, but expect Gonchar to be looked at carefully today.

Where was Alexander Ovechkin(notes)?

Through the first three games, Ovechkin had 26 shots, five goals, and one assist. Last night, the Pittsburgh defense held the league's leading goal-scorer to just two shots, his lowest total since managing just a single shot way back on February 3rd against New Jersey.

Despite the Capitals six penalties, Ovechkin still led all forwards in time-on-ice with 25:22. While he may not have been a big factor in Game Four, Washington still kept themselves in the game, which can be attributed to their depth.

Has Simeon Varlamov been solved?

After the first two games, I thought Pittsburgh needed a blowout to get ‘The Amazing Varlamov' off of his game and put the Penguins back into the series. While 5-3 isn't necessarily a blowout, Pittsburgh did benefit from a Varlamov's glove miscue on Ruslan Fedotenko's(notes) tally and two goals that the rookie net minder had good positioning on (Gonchar's and Maxime Talbot's). Those goals chipped away at the Varlamov mystique.

Pittsburgh was frustrated as hell at not being able to crack Varlamov through the first two games, but last night's win is one that might get the kid goaltender out of their heads and thinking that the magic might have run out for him. For some reason, Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau was asked if Varlamov will start tonight's Game Five, to which he indicated yes. Why on earth would he give the rookie a quick yank like he did to Jose Theodore(notes)? This might have been Varlamov's worst performance of the playoffs so far, surely his confidence is much higher than that of Theodore's at the moment.

Game Five is tonight back at Verizon Center in Washington D.C. Pittsburgh has the momentum and an early lead will have Capitals fans nervously rocking their red.

Speaking of rocking some red, the RBC Center was yet again loud, no matter how overrated Bob Ryan thinks it is, and saw Carolina match Boston's physical intensity en route to 4-1 victory, putting the Eastern Conference regular season champions on the brink of elimination down 3-1 in the series and in a position that they've never been able to overcome in team history.

Jussi Jokinen(notes) potted the game-winner early in the third-period and Eric Staal(notes) tallied two more goals to tie him with Sidney Crosby(notes) with nine for the playoff lead.

After the game, Bruins head coach Claude Julien sounded like a man who was about to coach his last game of the season on Sunday night:

"I think our team has picked the worst time of the year to play their worst hockey," Julien said. "When you look at the whole team right now, there isn't anyone who has played up to their potential. They're obviously out of sync, the passes are not crisp. You can see the frustration on the players right now, and it's certainly getting worse."

A player's only meeting on Thursday obviously didn't help change things on the ice for Boston. In the Hurricanes however have now gone from being 80 seconds away from starting their summer vacation in April to now one victory away from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. The ‘Canes weren't given a shot by either myself or Wyshynski before the second round began (we did pick them to beat New Jersey though!), but at this point, credit has to be given to Paul Maurice for turning around that team and to Eric Staal, who once again is showing that he's a big time player come the post-season.

Maybe now Staal and the ‘Canes will receive the credit they've proven they deserve?