No rest for the weary

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:43 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- And now for the fitness test portion of this epic series.

The Eastern Conference semi-final between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins heads into a crucial, gruelling 24-hour stretch beginning tonight at 7 p.m. when Game 4 gets going at Mellon Arena.

By midnight Saturday, the series could be over or either team could be one win away with a 3-2 lead.

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

"During the season, it's a bit of a factor sometimes. But in the playoffs, they are intense, emotional games and you have to turn the page quickly."

After opening up a 2-0 lead in the best of seven series by sweeping their home games, the Caps fell 3-2 in overtime here on Wednesday night. Following tonight's contest, both teams will hop on separate charter flights for the short hop down to Washington where Game 5 will be played tomorrow night at the Verizon Center.

Obviously the players would have preferred more downtime but arena conflicts in Pittsburgh left the NHL stuck with options.

Ideally, Game 4 would have been tonight, Game 5 on Sunday in Pittsburgh and Game 6 back here on Tuesday. Instead, Game 6 (if necessary) will be played Monday because the Mellon Arena is booked for a Yanni concert.

(Some have blamed CBC for pushing for a Saturday night game, but network officials say that they are not responsible for the quick turnaround.)

"I don't think anybody wants to play back-to-back in the playoffs," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "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 team wanted this."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma figures one of the big concerns is the chance for a rapid swing in momentum.

"You have to let go and get right back on the horse," Bylsma said. "It's gonna be bang-bang, and on Sunday someone's gonna be ahead in this series."

As for the hockey, the Penguins will hope to match a near dominant effort on Wednesday in which they outshot the Caps, 43-24. That game saw struggling Pens star Evgeni Malkin wake up and had a near dominant performance in the 3-2 overtime win.

But for the play of rookie sensation Simeon Varlamov in the Washington net, the game could have been considerably more one-sided.

"If it wasn't for their goalie, it wouldn't have been a one-goal game," Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik said following this morning's game-day skate.

The Caps realize that with Malkin seemingly back in business, there will be even more reason to focus on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby who has 14 points in eight playoff games. Crosby is second only to Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf (16) in playoff scoring, one ahead of his Capitals' foil, Alex Ovechkin.

"He's the second best player in the world, he's the best player in the world we play against," Boudreau said of Crosby. "So we have to pay special attention to him."

GAME NOTES: The shoddy ice at the Mellon Arena has become an issue. Ovechkin and Boudreau complained about it following Wednesday's Game 3 and Orpik today said "it's the worst I've ever seen it and it won't be any better after last night's concert." Comedian Dane Cook was on stage last night and on Tuesday a WWE event helped contribute to the bad ice on Wednesday ... Including the overtime period, Malkin had a whopping 29 minutes and 38 seconds ice time in Wednesday's Game 4 ... Ageless Cap Sergei Fedorov on playing games on back-to-back nights: "It's playoffs, so what the hell. You've got to be ready no matter what."


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