2010 Stanley Cup finals: Tough defense, not fatigue, slows Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews

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prongervtoews.jpgIt’s natural to throw a quality player under the bus when he’s hit a brick wall. The thing is, sometimes people stumble when they try to identify what, exactly, that brick wall is.

Take, for instance, the case of the teams’ two floundering captains. Both Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards were playing incredible hockey through the first three rounds of these playoffs. Toews had an amazing 26 points during that period while Richards wasn’t far behind with 21. Conversely, through three contentious Stanley Cup final contests, both players only have one assist each.

So what, exactly, is bugging the two team leaders? Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun proposes the time-honored excuse of fatigue.

At times, it has been his lack of determination, which has been the polar opposite of his calling card as a hockey player. Richards cleanly lost a faceoff in Game 3 to John Madden, which resulted in a Chicago score. Two former players indicated that Richards’ inability to bear down at times is likely due to “exhaustion.”

Said one former player: “At times, it looks like he wants to do something but his body just won’t allow him to do it. It looks to me like he’s physically worn down.”

Some are wondering the same of Toews, who has had a little more jump than Richards, his Team Canada linemate and fellow captain, but Toews has the difficulty of playing most of his shifts in the series against Chris Pronger. That, by itself, is difficult. But when Ben Eager has more points three games in than the Blackhawks’ leading scorer, it means even the captain is asking questions of himself.

Now, it’s not completely crazy to blame the two players’ struggles on “being out of gas” (especially considering the Olympics), but I fail to see the reason why they didn’t suffer from the same ailments in the first three rounds of the playoffs. It reminds me of Eric Staal puttering out in the Stanley Cup finals after dominating the playoffs before that point; the question wasn’t “What are the Oilers doing that no one else could?” but rather “Is Staal injured?”

Oddly enough, the same player charged with shutting down Staal is also giving Toews and Patrick Kane fits: Chris Pronger. Let’s not forget, also, that the Chicago Blackhawks trot out a Norris Trophy nominee in Duncan Keith and Dave Bolland, the checking center who hampered high-scorers Joe Thornton and the Sedin twins to the point of frustration.

It’s not as “sexy” or interesting to blame a slump on a tough matchup. Many sports writers would like to assume that any mountain could be climbed by determination or stick-to-itiveness. Yet, my guess is that the real reason the two captains struggle is because they’ve met their matches.

Then again, this series is still young, with plenty more hockey to come. You know, just like those supposedly exhausted players.

Capitals accuse Letang of leaving his feet, hitting Johansson in head

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Get this: the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins seem divided on the legality of Kris Letang‘s hit on Marcus Johansson.

(Take a moment to gather your thoughts amid this shocking revelation.)

You can watch the hit over and over in the video above. This post features some takes on that check, which the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly reviewing.

Generally speaking, the three things people discuss regarding the check is how late it might be, if Letang used his feet and if Johansson’s head was the principal point of contact.

Letang told his side of the story:

The Capitals disagree:

While Barry Trotz pleads the Fifth after his previous comments about Brooks Orpik‘s suspension:

No doubt about it, Letang’s status is the top story to follow in this series between Games 3 and 4. We’ll find out soon enough how it all shakes out.

Penguins ride Murray’s masterpiece to 2-1 series lead vs. Capitals

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If Marc-Andre Fleury suiting up bothers Matt Murray, then the rookie goalie channeled those feelings into a masterful performance on Monday.

The Washington Capitals absolutely dominated Game 3, but Murray was even better, stopping 47 shots as the Penguins stole one 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead.

(Capitals fans might see some parallels to Washington’s Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers; they fell 2-0 despite a 44-11 shots on goal edge thanks to Michal Neuvirth‘s heroics.)

Murray stopped chance after chance before Alex Ovechkin finally broke through for his first goal of this series. Justin Williams then brought the Penguins’ lead down to 3-2 to make for a hold-your-breath final minute.

A driven Ovechkin and strong overall play from the Capitals (despite this defeat) aren’t the only reasons why Game 4 might present some twists.

First things first: Kris Letang might get suspended for Game 4 (if not for more than one game) thanks to this controversial check on Marcus Johansson.

Beyond that, there could be some bumps and bruises from this contest.

Bryan Rust left during the first period and didn’t return to the game after blocking a shot. Brian Dumoulin seemed shaken up after an Alex Ovechkin hit in the third period. The Capitals might have a player or two to look at, as well.

In other words, the Penguins could really lack for quality defensemen with Letang possibly suspended and possible injury absences for Dumoulin and Olli Maatta.

This series is living up to the hype … and really building up the hate.

Yes, NHL is reportedly looking at Letang’s hit on Johansson

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It remains to be seen if Kris Letang will get suspended for his hit on Marcus Johansson … and if he does, for how long.

(You can read initial reactions and some analysis about the specifics of the check vs. the one that got Brooks Orpik suspended here.)

There are a few things we do know already.

For one thing, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly looking into it.

Another factor that could help Letang avoid a suspension or limit the duration of supplemental discipline: Marcus Johansson returned during the second period.

In fact, Johansson delivered some hits on Letang.

There have been some nasty moments in Game 3, and more might be coming. The Penguins lead 2-0 with a few minutes remaining in the middle frame.

Kris Letang may face suspension for hit on Marcus Johansson

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Update: Reports indicate that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is indeed looking into the hit.

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As thrilling as this Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series has been, it seems like every game presents another controversial hit.

Game 3’s most noteworthy entry (so far?) came when Kris Letang was whistled for interference on Marcus Johansson.

Penguins fans griped that Brooks Orpik didn’t get a major penalty for his hit on Olli Maatta … now Capitals fans likely feel the same about the check Letang delivered.

Watch it in the video above. Also, Stefanie “My Regular Face” has it in GIF form:

Things could get ugly in Game 3:

One factor in a suspension happening – or at least the duration of the suspension – would be what the point of contact was:

Also, lateness of the check:

The Penguins ended the first period up 2-0 against the Capitals, even though Washington played one of its best 20 minutes of the series. Expect more drama.

Update: The Penguins won the game 3-2.

Read reactions to the check here.