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Turn it up to 11? Pens, Caps have a lot to live up to

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by WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby doesn’t think the Pittsburgh Penguins have some sort of mystical edge over the Washington Capitals. That all those series and all those years and all that dominance will not mean a thing when the two longtime rivals meet in the playoffs for the 11th time starting Thursday night in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Of course, it’s kind of easy to say that when you’re on the side that always wins.

Eras change. Stars change. Coaches change. Styles change (well, sort of). The result when the Penguins are on one bench and the Capitals are on the other and a spot in the next round in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup is on the line does not. The Penguins have won nine of the 10 previous meetings.

Epic collapses. Unlikely comebacks. Wild finishes. Emotional scar tissue from losses that come from being the hockey equivalent of Sisyphus. Hall of Famers (and future Hall of Famers) all over the place — particularly if you wear black-and-gold.

Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and company have a lot to live up to. But before we throw ourselves into the physical and psychological maw for two weeks, let’s press our finger on the bruises – or relive the joy, depending on your point of view – of the magic and misery that came before and almost certainly is to come.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

THE YEAR: 1991

THE ROUND: Patrick Division Finals

THE RESULT: Penguins in 5.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The Capitals scored three times in the first 10:26 of the third period of Game 2 in Pittsburgh to take the lead. Randy Gilhen – he of the three career playoff goals – jumped onto the ice during a delayed Washington penalty and emerged from a sea of bodies to tie it with less than 5 minutes left in regulation. Kevin Stevens won it with a wrist shot off a pretty setup by Ron Francis 8:10 into overtime to even the series. The Capitals scored three goals total the rest of the way as the Penguins advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 2. The massively talented Penguins had seven Hall of Famers on the roster (eight if you include the ageless and sure-to-be inducted Jaromir Jagr) and won their first Cup two rounds later.

THE YEAR: 1992

THE ROUND: Patrick Division Semifinals

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The Capitals sprinted to a 3-1 series lead. After getting drilled at home in Game 5, Washington led 4-2 4 minutes into the second period of Game 6. And then Mario Lemieux happened . Super Mario scored or assisted on three power-play goals over the final 30 minutes as the Penguins tied the series, then shut the Caps down in Game 7, a 3-1 win on the road to propel them to a second straight Cup.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 8. Pittsburgh had a bit of a Cup hangover after winning it all in ’91 and appeared on the verge of collapse after the Capitals crushed them 7-2 in Game 4. And then … well, consider this the start of a trend.

THE YEAR: 1994

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Capitals in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Washington again jumped out to a 3-1 series lead only to lose Game 5 at home. Back in Pittsburgh for Game 6, the Capitals went up 3-0 only to have the Penguins cut it to 3-2 after the first period. Momentum teetering, Washington defenseman Calle Johansson beat Tom Barrasso 1:25 into the second to restore the Caps’ two-goal lead and Washington closed out Pittsburgh for the first – and only – time.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 6. Pittsburgh viewed 1994 as a redemption tour after its bid for a three-peat was derailed by the Islanders in the 1993 playoffs. The Penguins won the Northeast Division and had the third-best record in the league only to lose to a Capitals team that started the season 0-6 and fired coach Terry Murray at midseason and replaced him with Jim Schoenfeld.

THE YEAR: 1995

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Lemieux sat out the lockout shortened 1994-95 season due to fatigue and the Capitals took advantage in the playoffs. Washington – stop us if you’ve heard this before – headed to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead and jumped ahead four separate times in front of a stunned crowd at the Igloo. Kevin Stevens, however, drew the Penguins even with 8:18 left in regulation and Luc Robitaille kept Pittsburgh’s season alive with his OT winner 4:30 into the first extra period to give the Penguins a 6-5 victory. Pittsburgh went on to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined 10-1.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 9. For a franchise that didn’t exactly have a reputation for answering when pushed, Washington’s remarkable play in Game 5 went against the grain and they didn’t have to worry about Lemieux. And yet …

THE YEAR: 1996

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Make it defining moments. All of them seeming to come in an epic Game 4 . The Capitals led 2-1 and didn’t have to contend with Lemieux after he was ejected late in the second period for fighting Washington’s Pat Peake. Regulation ended tied at 2. So did the first overtime. And the second (after Washington’s Joe Juneau couldn’t convert the first overtime penalty shot in NHL history ). And the third. With 45 seconds left in the fourth extra period, Petr Nedved threw a shot in from outside the left circle that slipped by Olaf Kolzig and into the net to tie the series. Pittsburgh captured the next two to advance to the conference finals.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: They might not have invented the number yet to rate the emotional toll of this one. Say ”Nedved” around Caps’ fans at your own risk.

THE YEAR: 2000

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 5.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Washington lost 7-0 in Game 1 but had a chance to even the series when Game 2 went to overtime. Jaromir Jagr, however, effectively ended the competitive portion of things with a power-play goal 5:49 into overtime as the Penguins – who finished a middling third in the Atlantic Division – knocked off the Southeast Division champions with relative ease.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 3. Washington’s record was a bit of a mirage in a division that included the teams (Atlanta and Tampa Bay) that finished with the two worst records in the NHL.

THE YEAR: 2001

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The last great stand of the Lemieux-Jagr partnership. Super Mario scored the game-winning goals in both Game 2 and Game 5 and Martin Straka’s OT winner finished off the Capitals in six games. Washington was built on coach Ron Wilson’s defensive style but the Penguins – as they almost always did – found a way to squeak by anyway. Pittsburgh allowed just 10 goals in six games.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 4. At this point, the rivalry had gotten to the point where the Capitals appeared to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

THE YEAR: 2009

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Let’s just go with the whole thing. The NHL pulled itself out of the 2004-05 lockout largely on the back of Crosby and Ovechkin. Meeting in the playoffs for the first time, they somehow exceeded massive expectations. They put up matching hat tricks in Washington’s Game 2 win. The Penguins responded by ripping off three straight only to have Washington force a Game 7 with an overtime victory in Pittsburgh in Game 6 (helped by three Ovechkin assists). Was this ”The Year”? SPOILER ALERT: No. At home in Game 7, the Capitals collapsed. Crosby opened the scoring, the Penguins were up by four just 2:12 into the second and that was it.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 7.5. It probably should be higher because of Washington’s very un-Capslike rally in Game 6 on the road but the Penguins were coming off a season in which they were a Stanley Cup runner-up and just proved to be more mature when it mattered.

THE YEAR: 2016

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals

THE SERIES: Penguins in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Pittsburgh was in a malaise in December and fired coach Mike Johnston in favor of Mike Sullivan. General manager Jim Rutherford overhauled the roster to one built on speed and depth. All three goal scorers in Pittsburgh’s clinching Game 6 win – Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino – were brought in by Rutherford to ramp up the team’s quickness. Together they formed the ”HBK” line and Bonino’s jam into the net 6:32 into overtime showcased the depth the Penguins needed to take some of the pressure off Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 9. The Capitals captured the Presidents’ Trophy by posting 120 points, 11 more than the next best team. They had home ice and a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in Braden Holtby, who lost in regulation only nine times during the regular season. Still, Holtby was outplayed – just a tad – by 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

THE YEAR: 2017

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Maybe Matt Niskanen‘s controversial shot to Crosby’s head in Game 3 that forced Crosby to miss Game 4? Washington’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7? Let’s go with Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The winningest netminder in franchise history had lost his job to Murray over the course of the season but was pressed into action when Murray was injured before Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s opening-round series against Columbus. Fleury was brilliant, no more so than in Game 7 against the Caps. He stopped 29 shots for his ninth career playoff shutout, including a save on an Ovechkin one-timer with the butt end of his stick late in the second period to preserve a one-goal lead.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 6. Why 6? Call it the emotional calluses of disappointment. If this loss was to say, the New York Rangers, it may have been more traumatic. But this is what happens when the Capitals play the Penguins.

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

Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

Here’s the full schedule:

Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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

Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph

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Alex Ovechkin will get his chance.

The Great 8 will contest for the Stanley Cup after his Washington Capitals defeated their past demons and the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Yes, the Capitals — a team that had to overcome a horrific playoff record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and then had to deal the disappointment of beginning the Conference Final with wins in Games 1 and 2 only to drop three straight to trail 3-2.

They took care of business in Game 6, and that train kept chugging along into Game 7.

Ovi put his stamp on Game 7 just 62 seconds in as he wired a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The first period was a wild affair, filled with scuffles, a fight and stolen jersey.

And then Andre Burakovsky arrived.

Burakovsky missed the first 12 games of the plays because of injury and then followed that up with seven games without a point.

He revealed earlier in the series that he lays a mental beating on himself too often. So Game 7 must have felt pretty good.

Burakovsky scored on two separate breakaways in the second period.

The first came off a brutal giveaway from Dan Girardi in his own zone. His second came after the Lightning got caught on a bad change.

Tampa looked like a shell of their former selves. They dusted themselves off after dropping the first two at home, but simply stopped scoring after the 33-second mark in the second period of Game 5.

[PHT’s Three Stars]

Braden Holtby showed up at precisely the right moment in the series, posting consecutive shutouts to close out the series.

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, meanwhile, were far from brilliant. No one over the last seven periods and change was on the Lightning.

The Lightning went 159:33 without scoring. Ouch.

You can’t win games when you don’t score, something the Lightning will have all summer to ponder. They led the NHL with 296 goals this season, all of which means sweet nothing now.

And now the attention turns to one of the more intriguing Cup Finals in a long time.

One of the greatest players of all-time with a chance to win his first Cup silence his critics after years of disappointment against the best story in sports, period.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

MORE:
NHL Playoffs 2018: Stanley Cup Final TV Schedule

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

PHT’s Three Stars: Burakovsky’s goals push Capitals into Stanley Cup Final

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1st Star: Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals

After being benched earlier in the series, Burakovsky responded in a big way in Game 7 scoring twice as the Capitals moved on to the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2nd Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby finished the Eastern Conference Final in a strong way, posting a second straight shutout while making 29 saves. The Capitals netminder has not allowed a goal since 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5.

3rd Star: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The captain only needed 62 seconds to open the scoring and quiet the AMALIE Arena crowd.

[Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph]

Highlight of the Night:

A wild first period included a tilt between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn:

Factoid of the Night:

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

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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.

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.