PITTSBURGH - There is every reason for the Pittsburgh Penguins to think it's over. They've won three games in a row, they're back at home, and they've done this so many times before to the Washington Capitals that it's almost as if they're following a script.
The players and the coaches change, the results don't. The Penguins go down two games, only to snatch back control with a late surge as a Mario Lemieux or a Jaromir Jagr, a Sidney Crosby or an Evgeni Malkin take change.
Happened in 1992, 1995 and 1996. It's happening again in 2009, despite all that Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is doing -- and, with seven of Washington's 15 goals, there's almost nothing more he can do in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Except to pull off what would rank as the greatest escape act in Capitals history, one even better than the first-round comeback in which they trailed the Rangers 3-1 before they won three consecutive games.
Ovechkin says the Capitals can do it. He's almost promising they can do it. To him, a potential elimination Game 6 in Pittsburgh on Monday night won't end the Capitals' season, but will be the start of a comeback that their fans and the hockey world will talk about for years.
"Next game is going to be different," Ovechkin said after the Penguins beat the Capitals for the second time in two nights, winning 4-3 in overtime on Saturday. "It's not over yet. If somebody thinks it's over, it's not over. ... We're going to come back here (to Washington) again, Game 7."
Ovechkin will need some help if he's going to pull this off, and that's part of the Capitals' problem. Ovechkin isn't getting any, and Crosby and Malkin are.
Of Pittsburgh's two big names, one is having a good series (Malkin, two goals and three assists) and the other a better-than-good series (Crosby, five goals and three assists). But the Penguins turned it around only when their second and third lines began scoring, with Ruslan Fedotenko getting a goal in each of the last three games, Jordan Staal scoring his first goal in 11 playoff games and Matt Cooke his first since the 2004 playoffs.
Fedotenko was a disappointment to the Penguins by scoring only 16 goals in 65 games this season, but he has four goals in his last seven playoff games.
"We got it (secondary scoring) in the first couple of games and we won," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Sunday. "They've gotten it the last couple of games and they've won. So, hopefully it's our turn."
Still, the Capitals must be wondering if they've set themselves up for yet another failure by the franchise against the Penguins, who won six of the seven previous playoff matchups between the rivals -- five times after trailing.
Even after they lost Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh, the Capitals could have won the series by maintaining home-ice advantage. They gave that away by losing Saturday, when Malkin's pass intended for Crosby banked in off Tom Poti's stick for the game-winning goal. This may be one time the Capitals regret that Poti employs one of the longest sticks ever used in the NHL.
However, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma realizes that desperation often is the biggest motivator of all, and that Washington is certain to have it.
"When you get down 2-0, that fear of not winning and not moving on is there," Bylsma said Sunday. "We got the desperation in our game we needed and we've put ourselves in a situation to move on. The guys in that (dressing) room know exactly what's at stake and what's in front of us for Game 6. We expect a team that's going to be real desperate ... a team that's good, that's dangerous, that's going to be giving everything they've got."
Withstand that desperation, and the Penguins will play in the Eastern Conference finals for the second season in a row. They last did that while winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992.
There's also this stat for the Capitals to ponder. The Penguins have never lost when they had the chance to close out Washington in a series, going 6-0.
The Penguins want to avoid what happened last month, when they lost a potential series-ending Game 5 to the Flyers 3-0 at home. That forced them to go on the road and win 5-3 in Game 6, despite allowing Philadelphia to score the first three goals.
"I think we learned from that," Staal said. "We know how big a game this is and how important it is for us."
Sergei Gonchar hasn't been ruled out for Monday's game, although it appeared the knee-to-knee hit that Ovechkin gave him in Game 4 might sideline the Penguins defenceman for the rest of the playoffs.
"I'm hoping he improves and we can see him on the ice, and we'll go from there," Bylsma said.