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Series squeezed by availability, TV

Washington general manager George McPhee made it clear that neither the Capitals nor the Penguins were consulted by the NHL before it scheduled them to play on back-to-back nights in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"You're just told," McPhee said, dryly.

Resigned to that reality, both teams are preparing for the fatigue factor that could change the course of their Eastern Conference semifinal. The Capitals lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, heading into Game 4 at 7 tonight at Mellon Arena. Game 5 is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Center.

"I don't think anybody wants to play back-to-back in the playoffs - neither team," McPhee said. "These are the playoffs. These are the biggest games, and you want to see the teams at their best. These games take a lot out of the players. Neither manager wanted this. Neither team wanted this. But it's the way it is this year."

The two criteria primarily considered for playoff scheduling, according to an NHL spokesman, are building availability and television rights. This series is being squeezed by both.

A Yanni Voices concert scheduled for Tuesday at Mellon Arena prevented the Penguins from playing host to a Game 6 that night. It could have led to a longer layoff between games - such as the three-day break afforded to Anaheim and Detroit this weekend - if not for the opportunity for the Canadian Broadcast Corp. to telecast the NHL's top three stars in the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin in prime time on its "Hockey Night in Canada" show Saturday night.

Regardless of the reason, the Penguins and Capitals will play twice in 24 hours, a span that would belabor even Jack Bauer.

"It's a lot of hockey in a short period of time," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "There's not a lot of time to refocus and re-energize. You have to let go of the game, get back on the horse and rejuvenate and refocus. I think that's going to be the key here the next couple of days. It's going to be bang-bang and, on Sunday, somebody's going to be ahead in this series."

Which puts a premium on tonight's game. The Penguins, coming off a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 3, can even a series they once trailed by two games with another win. Or the Capitals can take a commanding 3-1 lead home, with the chance to clinch.

"Back-to-back games - in any way, shape or form - (are) a challenge for both teams, no matter who loses," Crosby said. "The winner is obviously going to have the momentum.

"You play back-to-back games and it's wearing on you. During the season, it's a bit of a factor sometimes. But in the playoffs, it's intense, emotional games and you have to turn the page quickly. Every game is big."

Washington experienced back-to-back playoff games last season in its first-round series against Philadelphia. The Capitals won Game 6, 4-2, before losing Game 7, 3-2, in overtime.

Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, however, has never played back-to-back games in the NHL regular season or playoffs. Varlamov, 21, has faced 114 shots from the Penguins in the first three games of the series, and the barrage could take its toll.

In a league where first-round playoff series once played four games in five days, players know there's no sense complaining about it.

"It's going to be tough, but both teams have to do it so I don't think it's anything different than during the regular season. It's not like we have to do it and they don't, or vice versa," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said. "It's probably toughest on the coaches because they've got to break down tape, and they've got to have a long night. For us, we play and move on."

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