Alex Ovechkin

Weekend preview: Caps go back-to-back, ‘Hawks-Blues on NBC

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A quick look ahead at some of the narratives at play this weekend…

Big 48 hours for Washington

The Capitals, who head into Friday’s action four points back of Columbus for the East’s final wild card playoff spot, have a huge two-game road set beginning tonight in New Jersey, wrapping tomorrow on Long Island.

Tonight’s game (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN; watch online here) is crucial for both teams. The Devils are also alive in the playoff chase — five points back of the Jackets — and given how tightly Washington and New Jersey have played each other this year, Friday’s affair is up for grabs. The Devils won the first two meetings, 2-1 at Prudential and 5-4 at Verizon, but the Caps won the most recent contest 3-0 on the strength of Braden Holtby’s 25-save shutout.

There’s also a good subplot at play here, as Caps head coach Adam Oates spent time as an assistant in New Jersey under Peter DeBoer. The pair took the Devils to the Stanley Cup final in 2012.

“They’re a tough team to play against, so I expect it to be a grinding, low-scoring game,” Oates said, per NHL.com. “They’re penalty kill is tops in the league and they’re a very stingy team. You need patience and awareness out there.”

The Caps should expect a grind on Saturday against the Isles as well. The last time the two met, New York scored a 1-0 win in a stifling game that saw the teams go a combined 0-for-11 on the power play.

Related: PHT Extra: On the one-dimensional Alex Ovechkin, and what Oates should do

Chicago and St. Louis renew rivalry… again

One of the league’s fiercest grudge matches will go for the fifth and final time this season when the ‘Hawks host the Blues at the United Center this Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; watch online here).

St. Louis holds a 3-1 edge through the first four games, though the edge isn’t as significant as numbers suggest. Two victories came via the shootout and, in a statement game the last time out, Chicago whipped St. Louis 4-0 at the Madhouse on Madison.

The big test for Chicago on Sunday will be how the team plays without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The dynamic duo has been shut down for the remainder of the regular season to rest their respective injuries, but the ‘Hawks did pass their first test without Toews and Kane in the lineup on Thursday, scoring a 3-2 shootout win over Minnesota.

That said, the Blues represent a bigger challenge than the Wild. St. Louis heads into this weekend tied atop the NHL with Boston on points (111) and, last night, beat Buffalo 2-1 — with that victory, the Blues set a single-season franchise record for wins, with 52.

Sullivan calls it a ‘blindside hit to the head,’ but Marleau doesn’t think suspension’s coming

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PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long for the first controversial incident of the Stanley Cup Final.

Patrick Marleau‘s illegal check to the head on Bryan Rust — one that earned Marleau a minor penalty, and forced Rust to exit the game — left Rust day-to-day with an upper-body injury, per Pens head coach Mike Sullivan.

When asked what he thought of the hit, Sullivan was blunt.

“It’s a blindside hit to the head,” he said. “[Marleau] gets a penalty and I’m sure the league will look at it.”

Marleau wasn’t saying much about the incident following the game, but did suggest he wasn’t expecting supplemental discipline:

“I just tried to keep everything down,” Marleau added. “I didn’t want to get too high on him.”

It’ll be interesting to see what transpires. There hasn’t been a suspension in the Stanley Cup Final since Vancouver’s Aaron Rome was given a four-game ban for his massive hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton.

Marleau has no history with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

It should be mentioned the DoPS has been fairly active this spring, handing down five suspensions, including a pair of three-gamers to Brooks Orpik and Brayden Schenn.

Bonino scores late, role guys star again as Pens take Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — If this playoff run has proven anything, it’s that the Penguins are more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Tonight only reaffirmed it.

Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino did all the scoring on Monday, with Bonino’s late marker the winner as Pittsburgh defeated San Jose 3-2 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Bonino’s goal, his fourth of the playoffs, came with just over two minutes remaining, capping off a quality opener in which both teams carried play for long stretches.

Rust and Sheary punctuated a dominant opening period for the Penguins — they out-shot the Sharks 15-4 — but the Sharks replied with a stellar second frame, equalizing on goals from Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau.

That set the stage for a dramatic third, and the Bonino goal.

That he, Rust and Sheary did the scoring for Pittsburgh was fitting. There’d been plenty of talk heading into this series about role players coming up large, to the point where the American Hockey League sent out a press release noting that 23 of 25 Penguins that’ve played in the playoffs thus far came through Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, highlighting this spring’s “big four” of Rust, Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray.

Rust etched himself into Pittsburgh lore in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over the Lightning.

Murray’s exploits are pretty well-known. The 22-year-old was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6 of the ECF, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

He was good again on Monday, with 24 saves on 26 shots.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, scored his third goal of the playoffs tonight. Kuhnhackl tied a team high with eight hits.

As such, Pittsburgh has to be thrilled about how tonight went. They held up home ice and got contributions from across the board — the only downer has to be the health of Rust, who twice exited the contest after taking a hit to the head from Marleau.

As for the Sharks… well, this one will sting a bit. The club did remarkably well to rally from a two-goal deficit and carried play in the second period, but can’t be pleased.

They were beaten in the possession game and out-shot badly (41-26), things head coach Peter DeBoer wanted to control against Pittsburgh, a team he considers the fastest in the league.

That said, there are positives moving forward. Martin Jones was outstanding in his Stanley Cup Final debut, with 38 saves on 41 shots, and there’s still a chance to get the split on Wednesday night.

Of course, to do that, the Sharks will have to figure out how to slow down Pittsburgh’s role players.

Video: Patrick Marleau gets minor penalty for hit on Bryan Rust

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Patrick Marleau made a big impact with the 2-2 goal in Game 1, yet a hit he delivered on Bryan Rust might draw more attention.

With the score tied 2-2, Marleau was whistled for a minor penalty for “illegal check to the head” on Rust. The Pittsburgh Penguins power play was not able to score on the San Jose Sharks during that two-minute power play.

Rust left the bench for a short period of time, yet he returned to action.

Some believe that Marleau deserves a look from the Department of Player Safety for the check. Others wonder if it should have been a penalty at all.

Watch the video above and check out the GIFs below to decide for yourself:

Sharks flip the script, tie Penguins heading into third period

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates with teammates after scoring a second period goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (not pictured) in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins dominated the San Jose Sharks in the first period of Game 1, no doubt about it.

Even so, the Sharks entered the middle frame down 2-0, and responded rather than shriveling up. They basically switched roles with the Penguins in the second period, ultimately tying things up 2-2.

The first goal was one Matt Murray would probably like back (even more than a goalie would want any goal back, mind you), as Tomas Hertl beat him five-hole for a power-play goal.

Witness the Sharks’ first-ever goal in a Stanley Cup Final:

Fittingly, a grizzled veteran and longtime face of the Sharks’ franchise tied it up, as Patrick Marleau made it 2-2 with a clever wraparound:

Which team will win the third period? Could we see overtime? Find out on NBC.