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PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

If three consecutive Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series translate to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, then Caps fans might look at 2017 as “The Empire Strikes Back.” All that promise ended with darkness … although at least no one lost a hand.

Could this be the year that we see the Capitals celebrating surreally, as if surrounded by ewoks?

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy two seasons in a row only to fall to the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin & Co. still managed to win the Metro. Even so, this team lost a bunch of supporting cast talent during the 2017 off-season, and it showed in many of their stats.

This is as close as we’ve gotten to the Capitals being an underdog on paper, not just in the narratives. Will this group finally be able to overcome the hurdle of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the dynastic (empire?) Penguins?

In other words, with lowered expectations, could there be a new hope?

We won’t need to wait long for the next chapter to begin, as you can watch Game 1 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET; here’s the livestream link.

Schedule

Surging Players

Penguins: Jake Guentzel‘s Game 6 outburst was such a surge, he’d make a great spokesman if they rebooted Surge Cola again. He scored four consecutive goals to turn that contest on its head, and totaled five points just in that contest. It’s not like that was a one-night thing, either; Guentzel and Sidney Crosby sport matching outputs so far: six goals, seven assists for 13 points in just those six games. (They even have identical shooting percentages: their six goals came on 17 SOG, giving them 35.3 shooting percentages, which even make William Karlsson blush.)

To a lesser but still impressive extent, guys like Kris Letang are showing up for Pittsburgh, too. Letang collected three assists in Game 6, and six of his seven playoff points came in the last four contests of the Philly series.

Capitals: The most important surge is probably that of Braden Holtby, who’s been playing at a high level since getting his starting job back.

Other big names were productive against Columbus. John Carlson continues to inspire John Carl$son jokes, as he followed up a career-best regular season by leading the Caps in points with nine (one goal, eight assists). Alex Ovechkin scored twice in Game 6 and had a great series with eight points overall. Nicklas Backstrom did Nicklas Backstrom things.

The most heartening sign might be the assertive play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Beyond the nice production (four goals, four assists), Kuznetsov wasn’t shy about firing the puck, registering 28 SOG, second only to Ovechkin’s 33. Barry Trotz must be pleased.

Struggling players

Penguins: Sometimes it’s difficult to separate cold streaks from “not playing on the same line as stars” in Pittsburgh.

With that disclaimer out there, Conor Sheary (zero goals on 11 SOG) and Tom Kuhnhackl (zero points, just three SOG) have been quiet. Jamie Oleksiak seems to be in low regard lately. After averaging 17:24 TOI since being traded to Pittsburgh during the regular season, Oleksiak is averaging just 11:51 minutes per night during the playoffs.

Capitals: Washington received some nice contributions from depth guys Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, making quiet series from Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana more glaring. Both players generated 27 points during the season and just one assist apiece versus the Blue Jackets.

If something happens to Holtby, you have to wonder where Philipp Grubauer‘s head is at, too.

Goaltending

Penguins: Let’s not forget that it was Marc-Andre Fleury, gestures and all, who played incredibly well in helping the Penguins best the Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Matt Murray‘s experienced an up-and-down season as the unchallenged top goalie, and those peaks and valleys carried over to the playoffs. Murray only managed a .907 save percentage during the regular season and .911 in the postseason. Not great.

On the other hand, he’s been a big-game performer essentially from day one. If nothing else, his resume argues that he can be counted upon.

Capitals: Holtby is off to a fantastic start to the postseason, going 4-1-0 with a phenomenal .932 save percentage. Of course, he briefly lost his job due to an unusually stormy regular season, so it’s dangerous to pencil in “Best Holtby” even after that strong showing.

Fair or not, people will ask if the Penguins are “in his head,” particularly if the series gets off to a high-scoring start. Holtby really wasn’t awful in his previous duels with the Penguins, but he nonetheless fell short both times. Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal can make just about any goalie flounder, let alone one who has some baggage of past defeats.

(Grubauer had a great regular season and a rocky postseason, so he’s basically the opposite of Holtby. For all we know, a cleaner slate could be an asset … but the Capitals don’t want it to get to that point.)

Special teams

Penguins: During the season, the Penguins had a possibly historically lethal power play and a mediocre PK.

They connected on a healthy 20 percent of their opportunities against Philly, but it was Pittsburgh’s penalty kill that really came through, as the Flyers PP really let them down.

Both of these teams have managed dangerous power play units, both during 2017-18 and during their recent histories.

Capitals: John Tortorella & Co. had no answer for Ovechkin’s trips to “his office,” and the other weapons on Washington’s still-mighty power play. The Capitals (easily) topped all playoff teams with nine power-play goals, converting on one-third of their opportunities. They won the special teams battle handily, as they only allowed four PPG and were perfect through the final four games of the series.

During the regular season, Washington was middle-of-the-pack on the PK and ranked seventh with a power play success rate of 22.5 percent.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Fancy stats

Penguins: The Penguins have, essentially, been a possession juggernaut since Mike Sullivan took over. During the bleaker moments of the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh was doomed by bad luck, whether it was poor shooting, Swiss-cheese goaltending, or both.

Those numbers leveled out, and with that, the Penguins took off since the calendar turned to 2018. Pittsburgh hogged the puck on a healthy level against the Flyers, too. The Penguins stand as the more impressive possession team on paper.

Capitals: By a variety of possession metrics, the Capitals were underwhelming, if not downright bad, during the regular season. That said, they showed some signs of improvement late in 2017-18, and were neck-and-neck in possession stats with Columbus, especially if you correct for when the score was within one goal.

The bottom line, though, is that Washington is not a Corsi monster. Ideally, Holtby will continue to play well, and Washington will manufacture high-danger shots. They managed an above-average PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage, which is viewed as a decent shorthand for luck) during the regular season, even with hit-or-miss goaltending.

Injuries

Penguins: This is the Penguins we’re talking about; of course there are significant injury concerns. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have already been ruled out for Game 1, with Malkin’s health being an enormous concern. Pittsburgh’s dealt with a real scare for Kris Letang (he seems fine, or at least playoff-fine?) and also saw Patric Hornqvist miss some reps against the Flyers.

With Pittsburgh aiming for a “threepeat,” they are likely dealing with plenty of wear and tear that doesn’t keep people out of the lineup. All things considered, avoiding a Game 7 was a real bonus.

Capitals: Generally speaking, the Capitals remain flabbergastingly sturdy. Washington’s training staff might actually be wizards. They continued their amazing run of health for another season:

That said, this is a hockey team, so of course there are issues. Andre Burakovsky‘s out week-to-week, likely missing the remainder of the postseason. T.J. Oshie appears to be banged up, too.

X-Factor for Penguins

How can it not be Malkin’s health?

If the star center is only going to miss Game 1, or even just the first two games in Washington, the Penguins might be able to steal a win or two on the road. If he misses significant time or simply can’t play anywhere near an optimal level, the Penguins might fall short of the Caps’ firepower.

X-Factor for Capitals

Most of the time when people bring up “the yips” and “clutchness,” I roll my eyes. Sometimes it’s downright fun to play on those tropes/misconceptions.

The Capitals are a pretty special case, here, so you have to wonder if they’ll maintain morale if things get hairy.

This team has been lampooned for much of Ovechkin’s prime for falling short in the postseason, particularly against the hated Penguins. Washington fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Columbus, and they actually fought back from 3-1 to push their last series with Pittsburgh to a heartbreaking Game 7. So they aren’t “quitters,” yet you wonder if the sheer volume of letdowns might make them fragile.

What happens if this series starts off with some poor play and/or bad luck? Could things really go off the rails?

The narrative could go from “No one expects anything from this version of our team” to “Uh oh, it’s happening again” in dizzying speed.

Prediction

Penguins in 7: In many cases, breakthroughs happen after you give up on a sports team. Dirk Nowitzki’s title run happened after many gave up on the Mavericks in the NBA. The Sharks absorbed year after year of disappointments before making it to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. It’s a common joke that this could be the Capitals’ year because that’s just how weird the playoffs are, and it’s not as though the Caps are a bad team. They won the Metropolitan Division for a reason.

Still, the Penguins boast a deep, scary offense. They seem capable of finding that “extra gear” and still haven’t lost as series under Mike Sullivan. Here’s a reluctant vote for history repeating itself instead of the law of averages winning out.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Schwartz stuns Jets, completing Blues’ comeback in dying seconds

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These two teams finished with nearly identical records in the regular season, so it seems appropriate that almost every game in this series has been decided by a razor thin margin. This one was no different, though it had an extra element to it as the Blues surged to a 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues found themselves chasing almost immediately. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the game, exciting the hometown crowd, which started a “you look nervous” chant at Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Only the netminder wasn’t rattled.

Binnington held firm and while he did surrender a second goal, this time to Kevin Hayes, later in the period, he kept the Blues in this game early. A lot of credit also has to go to the Blues for their killing of a double minor to Robert Thomas midway through the first, preventing this game from getting away from them.

All the same, the Jets maintained their 2-0 lead for most of the contest. It wasn’t until 1:29 of the third period that the Blues finally got on the board thanks to a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly. He fired the puck in front of the net off a rebound, ending what had been until that point a shutout bid for Connor Hellebuyck.

Even after that, the period wasn’t all Blues. Winnipeg actually led in shots in the final frame 9-8, but the Blues continued to find ways to capitalize. Their comeback wasn’t without intrigue either. Brayden Schenn‘s game-tying goal needed to be reviewed because the net was dislodged at the same time the puck went in. Ultimately it was ruled as a good goal because Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien pushed St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist into the net, which is what dislodged it.

The comeback was completed with just 15 seconds to spare on a goal by Jaden Schwartz.

With that, the home team has lost every game in this series and four of the five contests have been decided by just one goal. Even with how close this series has been, this contest had a different tone to it thanks to the dramatic comeback. It will be a tough pill for the Jets to swallow, but they have to bounce right back to avoid elimination in Game 6.

Blues-Jets Game 6 from Enterprise Center will be Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Capitals think Foegele hit was dirty, Oshie expected to miss playoff time

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Warren Foegele gave the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead 17 seconds into what would be a slim 2-1 win in Game 4, but that’s not why the Washington Capitals imply that he shouldn’t suit up for Carolina in Game 5.

Instead, the Capitals are unhappy with Foegele’s hit with about five minutes remaining in the third period. While Foegele received a two-minute boarding major for his check on T.J. Oshie, plenty of Capitals believe that Foegele went over the line in a way that should prompt a harsher punishment.

You can judge the hit and fallout for yourself in the video above this post’s headline.

For one thing, Capitals head coach Todd Reirden called it a dangerous hit, and hinted that Oshie might be out for a while. The Department of Player Safety factors injuries into the supplementary discipline decision-making process (for better or worse), so Oshie being injured could play into this potential situation. Oshie certainly looked to be in serious distress after that awkward fall into the boards.

Reirden said Oshie won’t “play anytime soon.”

You can see from the hit video that Alex Ovechkin was incensed by Foegele’s hit. While Reirden’s most interesting comment seems to focus on supplementary discipline (again, indirectly), Ovechkin’s most interesting beef seems to be about the in-game penalty being a mere two-minute minor.

“It’s a dirty play,” Ovechkin said, via Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post. “It has to be not two minutes. It has to be a different call.”

See/hear more from Ovechkin and Reirden here:

For his part, Foegele explained that he was trying to lift Oshie’s stick and “give him a little nudge,” and that he wasn’t trying to “hurt him or anything,” according to Khurshudyan.

Rod Brind’Amour certainly didn’t seem to think it was too bad of a hit:

The Capitals didn’t provide an official update regarding how much time Oshie might mix, and it’s possible that more information will surface in the next few days. Of course, with this Round 1 series headed for a minimum of six games after Carolina tied things up 2-2, it also could be a while before we really know how long Oshie might be out, as teams are more secretive than spy agencies with injury information during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Injuries have factored into this Round 1 series so far, although the bad news has mostly been on Carolina’s side. Most memorably, head coach Rod Brind’Amour was unhappy with Alex Ovechkin after a one-sided fight with Andrei Svechnikov left Svechnikov with a concussion.

We’ll see what happens regarding Foegele and Oshie, but if there were any concerns about these two teams drumming up the playoff disdain many love to see in hockey, then you can probably put those worries to bed. With that in mind, some advice: you probably shouldn’t drop the gloves with Alex Ovechkin.

The Capitals and Hurricanes will break this 2-2 series tie in Game 5 at Capital One Arena on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hurricanes tie playoff series vs. Capitals with Game 4 win

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The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t content to merely compete in their first postseason since 2009; they want to win.

After hanging but falling short in Games 1 and 2 in Washington, the Hurricanes “returned serve” against the Capitals during the two games in Carolina, including Thursday’s 2-1 win in Game 4. The series now shifts back to Washington tied 2-2.

This was a far tighter contest than Carolina’s 5-0 win from Game 3. The Hurricanes earned an edge in possession stats, but not a huge one, while Washington produced a 31-24 shots on goal edge. With Carolina protecting its slim lead, some of that edge might be exaggerated, so you can basically chalk this one up as plain-old close.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Hurricanes probably didn’t love holding their breath at times, but now they know that they can defeat the defending champion Capitals in both tight (Game 4) and lopsided (Game 3) affairs.

Warren Foegele had ups and downs, among others. He scored the 1-0 goal just 17 seconds in, but also took what could have been a lethal penalty. He was given a two-minute boarding minor for a questionable hit on T.J. Oshie with just a bit more than five minutes remaining in regulation. Was a two-minute minor a just call, or should this have drawn a major? Considering playoff officiating, it’s tough to imagine a harsher punishment in such a key situation … but maybe more will come from the Department of Player Safety?

[MORE: Ovechkin, Capitals react to that hit, Oshie could miss time.]

Alex Ovechkin scored his customary power-play goal for what would be Washington’s only tally of the game, but the threat of a tied game was definitely there in Game 4. The Hurricanes were able to limit Washington’s chances, although Petr Mrazek had to come up big with a point-blank save against Evgeny Kuznetsov to secure the win.

Pierre McGuire called this “The Mrazek Miracle.”

Goaltending was a question for Carolina heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Mrazek’s been heating up lately (after finishing the regular season on a pretty torrid pace, too).

Injuries are piling up for the Hurricanes, yet they’re showing that they very much belong in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and now they’ve turned this into, essentially, a “best-of-three” series with the defending champs.

The Capitals and Hurricanes will break this 2-2 series tie in Game 5 at Capital One Arena on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Playoff injuries continue to pile up for Hurricanes

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As the Carolina Hurricanes hope to make it a long and successful Round 1 series against the Washington Capitals, and a deep run during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in general, they’re not just facing talented opponents. They’re also facing “themselves,” and not just in a mental sense — they have to overcome the limitations on their own bodies.

Injuries are one of the top hurdles you have to overcome alongside bad bounces and hot goalies.

The good news for Carolina so far in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) is that the Hurricanes went up 1-0 with a Warren Foegele goal just 17 seconds into the contest.

The bad news is that while that good trend of a hot streak continued, a negative trend of injuries also persists. Carolina already came into Game 4 without Andrei Svechnikov because of that ill-fated fight against Alex Ovechkin, and they were also missing beefy forward Micheal Ferland thanks to an upper-body injury.

It’s unclear if Jordan Martinook will end up missing significantly time, but he needed help off the ice after an awkward bump into the boards. Martinook briefly returned toward the end of the first period, yet was not seen on the Hurricanes bench to begin the second, and the team eventually announced that he would not return for Game 4.

(You can see that unfortunate bump in the video above this post’s headline.)

Martinook isn’t a huge loss on his own, but when you consider that part of Carolina’s strength is depth and scoring by committee, the ice packs are really piling up. Consider that:

  • Martinook scored a career-high 15 goals and tied a career-high with 25 points this season, and had an assist coming into Game 4.
  • Ferland finished fourth in team scoring with 40 points, including 17 goals, and may have hit 20+ if he wasn’t limited to 71 games played.
  • Svechnikov’s been a fantastic rookie who’s flourished as he’s gained Rod Brind’Amour’s favor as the season went along. Svechnikov generated 20 goals and 37 points during the regular season, and had two goals and one assist for three points in his first three playoff games.

Those are three players who bring different abilities to the table, from grinding to having the sort of sniping skills that can break a tight postseason skirmish open – and the Hurricanes have to hope that most, if not all, of them can return to the lineup as they hope to push this Round 1 match longer.

The Hurricanes ended up winning Game 4 by a score of 2-1, tying the Round 1 series 2-2. Read more about that game here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.