The Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 on Saturday night to take a 3-2 series lead, putting the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs on the brink of playoff elimination and putting the Capitals on the brink of ending a curse that has plagued them for over two decades.
The Penguins are 9-1 all-time against the Capitals in the playoffs, including winning the past seven encounters dating back to 1995. Most recently, the Capitals have been shown the door in consecutive seasons in the second round by the Penguins, this despite the Capitals owning a superior regular season record.
This time, the Capitals might actually prove their worth.
The Capitals were resilient in Game 5. After Jamie Oleksiak gave the Penguins an early lead in the first period, the Capitals rallied late in the frame, scoring twice in 33 seconds.
The Caps found themselves in penalty trouble in the second period and got behind 3-2 after Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist converted on two of those man-advantages, but would rattle off four straight in the third period (including two empty-net goals) to take the series lead back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Monday.
Jakub Vrana, who got a bump to Washington’s top line, didn’t disappoint, scoring the game-winner on a nice rush from Alex Ovechkin. Vrana also provided the assist that saw Evgeny Kuznetsov fire home the game-tying goal earlier in the period and added another helper in the first.
And don’t sleep on Holtby’s save just before the game-winning rush. Holtby stopped 36-of-39 to help the Capitals past their arch-playoff-nemesis in this one. Matt Murray allowed 26-on-30 for a less notable outing.
Despite the Capitals being up a game, the pressure is squarely on them to finish this series and put themselves in the Eastern Conference Final.
Team’s that take a 3-2 series lead have a near-80 percent chance of moving on. But the numbers that have swirled around in favor of the Capitals have never meant much in this matchup.
Pittsburgh has all the experience in the world to still win this in seven, so Washington has to manage their minds more than anything starting on Monday evening.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Penguins: Sometimes it’s difficult to separate cold streaks from “not playing on the same line as stars” in Pittsburgh.
If something happens to Holtby, you have to wonder where Philipp Grubauer‘s head is at, too.
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.)
Penguins: During the season, the Penguins had a possibly historically lethal power play and a mediocre PK.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers came up short in what head coach Dave Hakstol called the “biggest game of the series, so far.” It was another night where the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offense could not be stopped and their 5-0 victory in Game 4 means they take a 3-1 series lead back home with a chance to close things out Friday night.
It could have been a different game if not for the play of Matt Murray, who stopped 26 shots for his second shutout of the series and fourth shutout in his last seven playoff games. One of the bigger opportunities for the Flyers was a period of extended offensive zone time late in the first, but Murray stood tall, and when the pressure subsided the Penguins transitioned the other way resulting in a Phil Kessel goal.
“That’s what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” said forward Carl Hagelin. “There’s going to be momentum swings. You’re going to get pinned in your zone for an extended time and that’s what happened there. But we didn’t give up many Grade A chances.”
That cool demeanor of Murray’s isn’t just effective for him, it also positively affects his teammates.
“It helps. He’s a confident guy. He calms us down,” said Hagelin. “He’s always a calm guy. It’s one of those things we have a lot of faith in him. He trusts his ‘D’ and his forwards to do the job in front of him.”
“He [makes] saves at key times, too. That’s huge,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “Not just here and there, but early in the game or when we’re down a goal, he does a good job switching momentum. He’s definitely a special goalie that way.”
Through four games, Murray, who became the fastest goalie in NHL history to reach 25 career playoff wins, is rolling with a .958 even strength save percentage and has allowed only three goals at five-on-five in the series. A hostile Philadelphia crowd wasn’t going to faze the 23-year old goaltender. Before helping the Penguins to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016, he was thrown into the fire for his first playoff start on the road in Game 3 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers. He’d win both those games at Madison Square Garden and the rest was history.
So with the first period nearing a conclusion and Travis Konecny on a breakaway after leaving the penalty box, the Penguins had no cuase for concern. Murray would make the save and his teammates would add to the lead in the second period, putting the game, and potentially the series, out of reach.
“When you get those types of saves it certainly helps your team’s chances of winning,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “But that’s what Matt does for our group. I thought he was locked in all night long. He made the timely saves for us when we needed him to. Those are big points in the game, but you have to get that save if you’re going to win at this time of year.”
Technically speaking, NHL players only get paid for the 82-game regular season, aside from the pocket change that comes from certain bonuses for playoff wins.
In reality, a player can make a living off of a magical postseason run or two.
A strong couple of months could end up being costly in contract negotiations, yet greed can also be good in helping a team in the short run. Let’s take a look at the biggest contract year situations for all 16 of the teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In several cases, it’s not as much about deals that will expire after this season, but instead core players lining up for their first cracks at extensions in July.
It only seems fair to begin with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, even if their concerns are minor …
Biggest contract year: Nashville’s biggest concerns come down to the guys whose contracts end after 2018-19: Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne.
Still, there are a couple of RFAs who could mop up. Ryan Hartman needs to prove his value after being traded from the Blackhawks, while Juuse Saros could break the bank if something happens with Rinne and he goes on a big run.
Biggest contract year:Jonathan Bernier is at quite the fork in the road in his career.
The 29-year-old played a key role in keeping things going for the Avalanche earlier this season when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury, to the point that he probably did enough to earn another backup role. If he can author a big playoff run, then who knows what sort of offer he might be able to command?
With Varlamov’s own deal expiring after 2018-19, a red-hot run from Bernier could even force questions about a changing of the guard.
Biggest contract year:Connor Hellebuyck is a pending RFA who just broke the single-season wins record for an American goalie, going 44-11-9(!) with a fantastic .924 save percentage. If the Jets make a long-awaited but easy-to-imagine deep run, Hellebuyck will inspire many “buck”-related headlines.
The Jets also have Jacob Trouba and Paul Stastny to consider, while this playoff run will play a role in Patrik Laine‘s extension. Tough to imagine Winnipeg going through the summer without a new deal for Laine, whose rookie deal ends next season.
Biggest contract year:Jason Zucker blew away career-highs in goals (33) and assists (31) this season, generating 64 points. He doesn’t have a huge body of work of scoring at this level (Zucker’s 47 points from 2016-17 were easily his best before this season), so proving it in the postseason could help him earn even more of a boost.
Matt Dumba generated a sneaky-great season of his own, scoring 14 goals and 50 points. The Wild are very lucky that these two players are RFAs.
Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest contract year: The Golden Knights cleared up some concerns, such as handing Jonathan Marchessault a team-friendly extension. Even so, the Golden Knights may lead in greed.
William Karlsson is a pending RFA after leading the Golden Knights in scoring. Some of their biggest names are soon to be UFAs, including James Neal and David Perron. This team has a lot to prove and a lot to gain in the postseason.
Los Angeles Kings
Biggest contract year: For better or worse, most of this Kings team is locked in place. Tobias Rieder could be one of those “flavor of the month” types if he rides some high percentages.
Really, John Gibson might be the guy shooting for the most money in Anaheim. His dirt-cheap $2.3 million cap hit expires after 2018-19, so the Ducks will get their first shot at extending the underrated goalie in July. If he can get healthy and lead a surge, Gibson could drive up his price.
San Jose Sharks
Biggest contract year:Evander Kane generated 14 points in 17 games since being traded to the Sharks, and that includes a three-game drought at the end of the season. Few players had as much to gain or lose as Kane did coming into 2017-18, and that remains true entering the postseason.
The Lightning stand out as one of the teams with the most interest in how this might grease the wheels for extensions, though. Kucherov’s due for an enormous raise over his almost-insulting $4.767M cap hit, while Ryan McDonagh‘s similar mark also runs out after 2018-19.
New Jersey Devils
Biggest contract year: There are quite a few depth players on expiring deals in New Jersey, yet the most interesting names are imports from the trade deadline in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.
So far, Maroon has been especially useful since being traded to the Devils, as he has 13 points in 17 games with New Jersey. It could really help him to prove that he can score without Connor McDavid‘s help.
Biggest contract year: “Ri-Nash needs cash.” Both Rick Nash and Riley Nash are in contract years, with each forward set to be UFAs. Rick Nash probably grades out an “Incomplete” so far in Boston, as he’s only scored six points with the B’s, yet he’s been limited to 11 games played.
Considering how snakebitten Rick Nash has been, it would be pretty funny if he went on a tear in the playoffs. The Bruins wouldn’t mind, even if it would mean that his time would be short with Boston.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Biggest contract year: The Maple Leafs decided to keep rather than trade James van Riemsdyk, even though a lot of signs point to JVR moving on after this season.
For the second time in his career, he passed the 30-goal mark, collecting a career-high 36 goals. Still, this has been far from a fluke, as he’s scored 29 and 27 during other campaigns and has been a reliable 50+ point guy when healthy.
It’s anyone’s guess what kind of deal he’ll command, and that’s doubly true if he helps the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins.
Biggest contract year:John Carlson‘s long been a solid scorer for Washington, generating 37 points three times and even hitting 55 once. His contract year’s been one to note, though, as he topped all NHL defensemen with a whopping 68 points, including a career-high of 15 goals.
Carlson is poised for a big raise over his near-$4M cap hit. Piling on big postseason numbers would inflate that even more.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Biggest contract year:Boone Jenner fits the mold of a guy who could blow up for a playoff run, as right now, it’s really tough to truly gauge the value of a one-time 30-goal scorer who only managed 32 points this season.
The biggest situations to eye are players whose deals run through 2018-19. Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski both could get extensions during the off-season.
Biggest contract year: Some of the bigger concerns fall after 2018-19, although Jamie Oleksiak might be the latest member of The Justin Schultz Club: players who landed with Pittsburgh and then revitalized their careers (and paychecks). Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan also need to earn some dough.
Biggest contract year: None of the Flyers’ goalies are locked up for all that long. Petr Mrazek‘s deal is expiring this summer, while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both see their contracts run out after 2018-19. Philly’s goalies pose plenty of questions, yet you’d think that motivation won’t be lacking.