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Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic preview lives up to hype; Pittsburgh squeaks out 3-2 shootout win

Whenever people gripe about the hype heaped upon Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, I tend to half-agree. I think of it in the same way as a family would divvy up slices of pizza; Crosby and Ovechkin get too many pieces, but they still deserve the biggest ones because they deliver more often than not.*

The Pittsburgh Penguins came into this game with people expecting them to win, but they played against the Florida Panthers last night and were visiting a rested Washington Capitals team in this one.

While the Capitals dominated quite a few stretches of play, Marc-Andre Fleury and Crosby stood tall to help the Penguins earn a hard-fought shootout win.

Pittsburgh 3, Washington 2 (SO)

Crosby factored in both of the Penguins’ regulation goals, scoring the game’s first goal and then creating enough havoc to allow Chris Kunitz to score a 2-1 tally. Crosby extended his points streak to 23 games with that goal and assist, giving him the longest streak since Mats Sundin scored in 30 straight games during the 1992-93 season. That gives Crosby the longest post-lockout scoring streak, with 23 goals and 22 assists for 45 points in that span.

Sid was far from the only star to shine in this game, though. Convenient scapegoat/explosive offensive defenseman Mike Green was outstanding, as you can see from this tweet by Corey Masisak.

Mike Green ends up with 34:03 of ice time. Goal, six shots, eight hits, 5 blocked shots. Felt like he was hit 34 times. What an effort.

That’s quite the stat line for the brave souls who choose to give their Norris Trophy votes to Green (and not just because he tends to lead the NHL in scoring among defensemen).

Fleury is playing his best hockey since the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup run (he actually was average at best during many games in their Cup winning summer a year later), as he was the reason the team managed to get to the shootout in the first place. He made 32 saves overall and only allowed one goal through the first two periods despite the fact that Washington out-shot Pittsburgh 25-12 in that span. He also made a controversial stop in overtime, as it was unclear if Green scored an overtime winner because Fleury’s glove covered up a puck that may or may not have crossed the red line.

The Capitals kept applying pressure in the game, coming back from a 1-0 deficit with a Green goal and a 2-1 Penguins lead thanks to a sharp shorthanded goal by Mike Knuble, but couldn’t land a knockout blow because Fleury was on fire.

The game was hard hitting, competitive and about as captivating as any hockey fan could ask for. While it was disappointing that the contest ended in a shootout, Ovechkin and Kris Letang scored beauties in that setup to start things off. After that, Fleury and Michal Neuvirth lasted six more rounds until Pascal Dupuis roofed the puck to win the game for the Penguins.

It’s hard to imagine the Winter Classic topping this game, but considering the frequency Crosby, Ovechkin and with which these two teams deliver, it wouldn’t be shocking if the game earned its classic name.

* – Before you reply with some kind of “choking in the playoffs” comment, don’t forget that Ovechkin managed 10 points in that 7-game series against Montreal in the 2009-10 playoffs. One player cannot influence a game in the same way as a sport like basketball, so give Ovi a break.

Cody Eakin plays unlikely hero as Stars even series with Blues thanks to OT win

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Needing a win to even the series with the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars didn’t get off to the greatest start Thursday.

On a rather embarrassing play in the first period of a crucial Game 4, the Stars were caught on the television feed clearly with six skaters on the ice, but still surrendered a breakaway goal on a stretch pass to a wide open Vladimir Tarasenko — 1-0 Blues. Again, not a great start for the Stars.

Sometimes in hockey, it’s apparently not always about how you start but how you finish. The Stars gained strength during the second period on goals from Radek Faksa and Patrick Sharp just 1:09 apart. Early in overtime, Cody Eakin scored his first goal of these playoffs to give the Stars a 3-2 win.

This series is now tied heading back to Dallas for Game 5. For the Blues, it’s a missed opportunity to put the high-flying Stars on the brink of elimination.

Eakin snapped a 17-game scoring drought that stretched into late-March of the regular season by going top shelf, short side of Blues goalie Brian Elliott just 2:58 into the extra period.

Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp each had two-point nights for Dallas, assisting on the game winning goal.

 

In a series billed as Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast is taking over for Penguins, Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The well-traveled defenseman filling in for his team’s most indispensable player scored the first goal. The seemingly ageless center closing in on his 40th birthday scored the second. And the winger who makes a living trying to create space for Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby delivered the overtime winner that brought the Penguins within one victory of a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the stars might be out in the NHL’s marquee playoff matchup. They’re just not the ones shining.

Pittsburgh’s 3-2 thriller over top-seeded Washington in Game 4 on Wednesday night did more than give the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also highlighted the depth the club has spent months cultivating around Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Trevor Daley skated more than 28 minutes and picked up his first postseason goal in more than two years while serving the ironman role typically filled by Letang, serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in Game 3. Matt Cullen, who at 39 has openly wondered if he wants to return in the fall, slipped behind the Washington defense to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Patric Hornqvist, who spends most of time suction-cupped to a spot in front of the opposing goaltender, pounced on a loose puck 2:34 into overtime and slammed it by Braden Holtby to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game playoff losing streak in games pushed beyond regulation.

Related: Trevor Daley  is ‘in a good place’ now 

Heady territory for guys considered mere supporting players when the second-ever playoff showdown between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin began last week.

“I think there’s a great chemistry amongst the team that we have right now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it’s a thrill.”

Washington coach Barry Trotz tried to downplay the hype between two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in the run-up to Game 1, stressing there were much more to the longtime rivals than their franchise cornerstones.

Trotz was more right than he knew, only it’s Pittsburgh’s role players who have pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. Cullen’s two points during the series equal Malkin’s output. Hornqvist has three points through four games, two more than Crosby, though the two-time MVP occupied Holtby’s attention just long enough that the goaltender couldn’t get in proper position to stop the Game 4 winner.

“(Hornqvist) does a lot of the thankless things that help this team be successful,” Sullivan said. “To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill.”

The Capitals powered their way to the NHL’s best record behind spectacular goaltending from Holtby, a league-leading 50 goals from Ovechkin and a potent power play. All three have taken a significant step back against Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie Matt Murray has been every bit Holtby’s equal, Ovechkin’s 21 shots have produced a single goal and Washington is just 1 for 12 with the man advantage.

Though John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson have tried to pick up the slack, the Capitals are now on the verge of succumbing to an all too familiar result in the spring.

Trotz pointed to Letang’s absence in Game 4 as an opportunity Washington needed to exploit. Instead, Daley patrolled the blue line and quarterbacked the power play in Letang’s stead while Justin Schultz – playing for the first time in more than two weeks – was solid in his return.

“The other guys were good, too,” Backstrom said. “I feel like they’re a good team. It’s not going to be easy.”

Especially playing a club getting contributions from all over, a far cry from the top-heavy roster that relied so heavily – usually too heavily – on Crosby and Malkin for production during recent postseason swoons.

It’s symbolic of the way Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt Pittsburgh since taking over in the summer of 2014 that neither Daley nor Schultz were around when the season began. Then again, they’re hardly alone. Only a handful of players remain from the group that skated off the ice following a Game 7 loss to New York in the second round two years ago, a series the Penguins had led 3-1.

That setback is still fresh in the mind of Crosby and the others who remain. At the same time, most of the guys who surround Crosby in the dressing room won’t carry that baggage into Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington. This is, in many ways, feels like a fresh start filled with fresh faces, even if some are less well-known than others.

“We’ve always found ways to get the job done,” Daley said. “That’s what this team’s been all about. We always found ways to get it done. We started it awhile ago and it’s continuing on.”

 

Report: Ducks interested in Travis Green for vacant head coaching job

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Travis Green seems to be gaining increased attention for available head coaching jobs in the NHL, and the Anaheim Ducks, who fired Bruce Boudreau after a first-round playoff loss, are reportedly interested.

That’s according to a report from Elliotte Friedman during Thursday’s broadcast of Game 4 between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars.

Green helped guide the Utica Comets, AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, to an appearance in the Calder Cup final a year ago. The Comets were, however, eliminated in the opening round of the post-season this year.

“I think I’m ready,” Green, who has spent the last three seasons in Utica, said recently. “Every job in the NHL is worth its weight in gold, and I would have 100 per cent interest at options with every team in the league. You hope all your qualities are enticing for one of them.”

Related: With four vacancies, the NHL  coaching carousel is ‘spinning out of control’ 

Video: The Stars had six skaters on the ice and still didn’t cover Tarasenko on breakaway goal

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Vladimir Tarasenko can be elusive to the opposition at five-on-five. Apparently that also applies to when the opposition has six skaters on the ice and their goalie still in the crease.

Tarasenko opened the scoring for the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 on Thursday, sneaking in behind the Stars defense for a breakaway goal on Kari Lehtonen. The Stars, by the way, had six skaters on the ice as the puck was turned over in the St. Louis zone.

Despite Dallas clearly having too many skaters, the play wasn’t blown down and Tarasenko found himself in the one-on-one situation. He made no mistake.

(Here’s a screen grab of the turnover inside the St. Louis end, leading to the breakaway. Six Dallas skaters.)

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