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Starkey: Survival test for Penguins

| Saturday, May 9, 2009

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin ran into Evgeni Malkin's father shortly after Game 4 on Friday night —- and, no, Ovechkin did not speed up, turn his right leg and drop Vladimir Malkin with a knee-on-knee hit.

Instead, as Ovechkin reported, the two discussed his first-period hit on Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar —- the one that knocked Gonchar out of the game and perhaps the series.

No doubt, Mr. Malkin was disappointed with the hit, seeing as it felled his son's trusted mentor and power-play quarterback.

"I was disappointed, too," Ovechkin said. "I didn't want to hurt Gonch, but it's a game. It happens."

Ovechkin seemed legitimately contrite —- he and Gonchar are friends — but to the Penguins players, it sure looked like a dirty hit. And it was a major topic of conversation after their 5-3 victory tied the series at two games apiece.

"We saw the replays; (Ovechkin) sticks his leg right out at him," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Hopefully, the league takes action on it. ... That's three games in a row where it looks like (Ovechkin) is out there trying to hurt guys."

Added winger Matt Cooke, a former teammate of Ovechkin's: "Gonch was clearly going to get by him, and (Ovechkin) hangs a knee. It's a two-minute penalty• I know if that's me, I get a lot worse."

Ovechkin and his coach, Bruce Boudreau, claimed he simply missed on a shoulder check. A few Penguins players laughed in disgust, watching on a big-screen television in their dressing room, when Boudreau said as much in his post-game news conference.

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 cross-checking Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov 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.

The initial reports on Gonchar didn't sound promising.

"I saw him quick after (the game)," Orpik said. "He hadn't gotten the MRI yet, but it wasn't looking too good."

We've already seen the Penguins try to survive without Gonchar this season. It did not go well.

A coach was fired.

A team that had reached the Stanley Cup final almost missed the playoffs.

That's not to say Gonchar's absence caused all that. But I'll bet if you ask Michel Therrien, he'd tell you he would still be standing behind the Penguins' bench if Gonchar hadn't missed the first 56 games of the regular season.

The Penguins aren't necessarily doomed without Gonchar, either. This is a hardy bunch, as it showed last night, beating the Capitals despite playing with five defensemen most of the night.

How about Max Talbot as a prime example of this club's fighting spirit• After missing two golden opportunities in the third period, he buried one against Varlamov — who finally looked human —- to restore a two-goal Penguins' lead with 5:14 left.

But let's face it: If Gonchar's out, a significant challenge becomes daunting.

We're talking about the Penguins' third-leading playoff scorer, their runaway leader in ice time (more than 27 minutes per game) and their most-soothing presence.

"A guy who's been through a lot," said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. "He's able to stay calm in all situations, control the play, hold on to pucks."

And fire them. Gonchar scored a huge goal in the first period, about three minutes after the Capitals had taken a 1-0 lead 36 seconds in.

His power-play work was sorely missed. The Penguins lost momentum in the second period largely because their power play generated nothing in three attempts.

Coach Dan Bylsma tried Evgeni Malkin in Gonchar's spot on the right point, with Miroslav Satan up front.


Then, Bylsma tried Mark Eaton with Kris Letang on the points.


In the third period, the Penguins gave up a short-handed goal.

But they survived.

How long could they continue to do so without Gonchar• It's a question they don't want to be forced to answer, but likely must.

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