Ultimately, it came down to the goalies

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WASHINGTON -- Along 7th Street NW, the young redheaded girl toted her white sack of fast food three hours before Game 7, mounted the first few marble steps of the National Portrait Gallery and sat down to eat 20 feet from where a man was offering professional palm readings.

With palm readings, you should always consult a professional, but the redhead in the VARLAMOV jersey merely munched out, resisting any urge toward pregame mysticism.

Too bad.

Not five hours later, it was evident that had she dragged her red No. 40 shirt just a few steps to her right, she could have been saved some torment. The palm reader might well have taken her hand and seen the whole thing coming.

Don't tell me anyone else did.

Parading right down 7th for this girl and about 20,000 red-shirted Capital fans wedded to the immediate fortunes of Washington goaltending sensation Simeon Varlamov were torment, disappointment, betrayal, pain, bewilderment, bitterness, emptiness, pain, heartache, night sweats, chronic indigestion and pain.

Approximately.

That's what the Penguins can do to you when they play almost perfectly, when they build most of a 5-0 lead in the first hour of the biggest game of the season, when they go gleefully about their traditional spring administration of Capital punishment.

"Probably didn't have his best night," defenseman Brooks Orpik quipped about the Capitals goalie in the somewhat giddy minutes after the Penguins rode a 6-2 spanking into the Eastern Conference final against Boston or Carolina. "But that's hockey for you."

Palm readers, tarot card interpreters, and everyday experts among the hockey journalists had long since cast this series as a matchup that would tilt on goaltending, but it tilted to the opposite end of their expectations for most of two weeks, with the rookie Varlamov outplaying playoff-tested Penguins counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury. But in the end, it tilted back violently, and you knew the callow Capitals hero was in trouble at 12:44 of the first period, eight seconds after Sidney Crosby stabilized a pinballing puck near the Washington net and tapped it home for a 1-0 lead.

Now, Craig Adams was breaking toward the net with a pass from Ruslan Fedotenko, Adams not having been listed among the top 30 most-frightening offensive puck handlers in this or any other series. But Adams snapped one between Varlamov and the near pipe to put the Penguins up 2-0.

That one had no business getting by Varly, and Varly, though no one knew it at that moment, was quickly, shockingly, going out of business.

Two goals in the first 2:12 of the second period sent him to the bench and brought back to the Capitals goal Jose Theodore, who'd been unceremoniously banished after the first game of this playoff spring. Varlamov had performed pretty much miraculously ever since.

The Penguins' third goal, the one Bill Guerin buried just 28 seconds after the first intermission, probably wasn't Varlamov's fault. Washington's Shaone Morrisonn gave Guerin too much room near the top of the left wing circle, and suddenly a series in which 92 percent of the ice time had been played with the score tied or one team having a one-goal lead witnessed its first three-goal lead. Its first four-goal lead and its first five-goal lead were to come.

Through all that, Fleury re-emerged from the margins of severe, hyperventilated criticism to the place he occupied before any of this began -- as the superior goaltender. He was never really an issue.

"No, no, why?" said Fedotenko, who had five points in the last five games and scored in three of them. "So many times, he kept us in games. He's been outstanding for us every night. And Varlamov, what can you say? He played really well, but when you're trying to defend against 40 shots every other night, it has to get to you. We just kept the same philosophy against him. Get the puck on net, crash, just keep testing him."

Fleury's game returned with perfect playoff timing soon after they dropped the puck. He stopped Alexander Ovechkin's wrister, the first serious scoring chance of Game 7, just 1:21 in. But less than two minutes later, the Penguins got all the evidence they needed that this would be Fleury's night.

Ovechkin swept toward him on a breakaway at the end of the third minute, shot high to Fleury's glove side, and the Penguins goalie webbed it with a snapping motion that was one part defiance, nine parts skill.

"I never thought Fleury was an issue in this series," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He has been fazed by some powerful shots from some very skilled players, but he's made big saves for us in probably every game."

You could almost believe anything about the capabilities of Bylsma's team today. If they can swamp an opponent as good as Washington in the cauldron of a Game 7 road game, what can they not do?


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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