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NHL stars on knocking off Penguins, the ‘heavyweight champs’

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Each time Seth Jones felt like the Columbus Blue Jackets were dominating, the Pittsburgh Penguins went down the ice and scored. The series was over fast.

T.J. Oshie knows the feeling because the Penguins did it to the Washington Capitals often during playoff series the past two years.

“It kind of deflates what we’re doing and it’s hard to trust your game after that,” Oshie said.

Opportunistic, well-coached and talented, Pittsburgh has won eight consecutive playoff series to become the NHL’s only back-to-back Stanley Cup champion of the salary-cap era and the first since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now everyone’s trying to figure out how to stop the march of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins as they go for the three-peat.

“It’s not one thing,” Jones said. “There’s not a Crosby stopper. There’s not a Malkin stopper. You can’t put a stop on them. You just have to contain them.”

No one has contained them so far. The Penguins mowed through the New York Rangers, Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks to win the Cup in 2016 and then the Blue Jackets, Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators in 2017, and only three of those series needed seven games.

Patrick Kane acknowledged that while he and the Chicago Blackhawks used to be the standard after winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the Penguins have surpassed them. While the Los Angeles Kings rivaled the Blackhawks during their heyday, the Penguins have shown to be unbeatable when it matters most.

“It seems like they’re on the brink sometimes, and they find their way out of it,” Kane said. “Just watching games, it’s almost like you have that feeling that they’re going to win, especially in playoffs. Whether that’s the coaching staff or the players or just that organization, it seems like they have something pretty special going right now.”

If there are cracks in Pittsburgh’s armor, they came this offseason with the losses of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Trevor Daley and forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen. But Crosby, Malkin, goalie Matt Murray, winger Phil Kessel, top defenseman Kris Letang and coach Mike Sullivan remain, which explains why the Penguins are favored to win again and make it three in a row for the first time since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.

“When you get Sid, Geno, Letang on the team, you always have a chance,” said Fleury, who went to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. “That’s how I felt every time. When every season started I always felt like we had a chance to do great. I think they’ll be dangerous again.”

Usually the grind of playing over 100 games in a season wears on a team. Ryan Getzlaf, whose Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and lost in the first round the next year, said a team needs luck and a group that’s able to sustain a high level of game through fatigue the entire next year.

Now that the Penguins have sustained to win twice, no one’s betting against them doing it again.

“They’re a good team, and they’re going to continue to be a good team,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “They’re the heavyweight champs right now, and you’ve just got to knock them off.”

Easier said than done. Now maybe Murray will struggle with a heavier workload or the depth that Fleury said paved the way to the championships will wear thin.

But if there’s a blueprint to attacking the Penguins, it might be putting pressure on their blue line.

“You have to play a physical style, but also you have to play a skill style, as well,” Jones said. “You got to get to them, you got to get to the defensemen, I think and that’s something that teams may focus on.”

The Penguins won last spring with a no-name defense while being outshot 794-718, yet they found ways to win. Oshie said any potential Pittsburgh-killer must be more resilient, and Predators defenseman Roman Josi knows there’s a mental aspect to facing a team with so much success.

“Once you win a lot of series, you start to believe more and more and the confidence grows,” Josi said. “As an opponent you’ve got to get in there and believe that you can beat them. Obviously it’s tough. They’re a great team. But you got to have that belief.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Brooks Orpik leaves Game 7 after Paquette’s hit from behind

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While the Washington Capitals built up a lead in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, they lost two players before the end of the second period.

First, Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a Ryan McDonagh shot with the back of his neck in the first period. After returning to the game, he would leave the Capitals’ bench late in the second period.

Joining him would be Orpik, who took a big hit from behind along the boards from Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. As Orpik was being tended to, the officials got together and determined that there would no penalty on the play, which is an odd decision.

As Orpik goes to get the puck in the corner, he does peek over his shoulder and sees Paquette a ways away, but he doesn’t change his body position as Paquette drills him. He’s probably not expecting to get hit even with the Lightning forward in the area. That would have easily been at least a major, maybe even a game misconduct (Remember Steve Bernier?).

The Capitals would respond to the hit two minutes later. On the scoreboard. Andre Burakovsky potted his second goal of the night to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Goal, fight, ripped jersey highlight wild first period in Game 7

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So, Alex Ovechkin isn’t a big game player, you say?

What say you, then, about Ovi’s goal 62 seconds into Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday?

Ovechkin called Game 7 the biggest game for himself, the team and the Capitals organization on Tuesday and he wasted no time putting an early stamp on it.

His shot was vintage Ovi, just slightly higher in his “office” than usual. But the result was the same: a seeing-eye clapper that sailed past Andrei Vasilevkiy for a 1-0 lead.

Ovi’s goal kicked off a wild first period.

Game 6 was a brilliant hockey game, and if we got even half that energy in Game 7, it was always going to be a doozy.

Devante Smith-Pelly, who was the hero in Game 6, made quite the sacrifice after getting drilled in the head with slapshot off the stick of Ryan McDonagh. Smith-Pelly remained down before getting helped off the ice and down the tunnel to the room.

He returned a short time later.

The period also featured a spirited scrap between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn. The two exchanged pleasantries earlier in the period in a scuffle after the whistle, where Coburn ripped off Wilson’s helmet and both were handed penalties.

When their time in the sin bin ran out, each exited the penalty box and immediately tried to knock each other’s head off.

Wilson and Coburn were involved in much of the fun in the first.

Wilson’s hit on Chris Kunitz helped set up the rush that led to Ovechkin’s goal.

Coburn, meanwhile, was trying to collect all the Capitals gear he could in the period. After ripping off Wilson’s helmet, he then stole Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s jersey right off his back in the same scuffle.

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Lightning meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most
Lightning don’t expect Kucherov to be ‘invisible’ in Game 7
Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
Barry Trotz takes his turn at the Capitals’ hot lap ahead of Game 7
Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’
Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning
•  What the Capitals mean to the D.C. community

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is closer than ever to playing for the Stanley Cup, and he’s determined to make the most of the opportunity.

”I’ve never been in this position before,” he said Tuesday, looking ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The winner Wednesday night earns a berth in the Stanley Cup Final opposite the Vegas Golden Knights, who will try for hockey’s biggest prize in their inaugural season.

Ovechkin and the Caps are hoping to shed a label as playoff underachievers, a franchise that dazzles during the regular season only to disappoint at the most important time of the year.

”I’m excited. We’re all excited. … We all want to be in this position and move forward,” said Ovechkin, who is playing in the conference final for the first time during his prolific 13-year career.

”(Wednesday night) is probably biggest game in my life, this team, organization probably. … We still haven’t reached our goal. Tomorrow is going to be a huge step forward.”

Not if the Lightning have their way.

Tampa Bay is playing Game 7 in the conference final for the third time in four years. It beat the New York Rangers on the road to advance to the 2015 Cup Final, but fell short the following year against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

”Experience is always a good thing, but it’s nothing I’m going to sit and lean on,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-1 in Game 7s during his career. ”It’s about doing your job at the highest level you possibly can.”

Washington forced Wednesday’s winner-take-all matchup with a dominating 3-0 victory in Game 6.

In a series where home ice has not been a clear advantage, the Lightning are hoping it provides an edge in Game 7.

Washington won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa, then dropped the next two at home. The Capitals are 7-2 on the road this postseason.

”When you get this deep into a series, everyone knows each other by heart. Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself for this moment,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

”I do like the fact there will be 19,000 people helping us, to will us to victory. I want the guys to enjoy the game. It will be a phenomenal experience. … You just have to remember, don’t let the game get bigger than it really is. Go out there, execute, leave everything out there and we’ll see what happens.”

This will be Washington’s 11th Game 7 since the start of the 2008 playoffs, most among all NHL teams in that span. None of them, however, have been for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Monday night’s win in Washington that there’s no other team he has coached that he would rather lead into a seventh game.

”We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn’t waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit,” he said.

”This team has done a lot of special things this year, it’s grown, it continues to do that,” Trotz added. ”What an opportunity going into Tampa. … We’ll see if we can earn the right to keep playing.”

And while that undoubtedly would be a major breakthrough for Ovechkin, Trotz reiterated the Capitals all have a lot invested.

”The opportunity is not only for Alex, but for everybody,” he said. ”Everybody that gets a chance to be in a Game 7, which will allow you to go to the finals. It’s exciting, it’s fun.”

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey