Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

***

It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning

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There are few teams as “ready” for the stakes of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN; stream it here) quite like the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Consider this: the Lightning are readying for their third Game 7 in a conference final in four years. While reaching the third round is a first for Alex Ovechkin‘s rendition of the Capitals (not to mention Barry Trotz’s coaching career), Washington is resoundingly seasoned when it comes to these decisive contests.

Actually, that brings up an idea: why don’t we take a chronological look at all the Game 7’s for the Lightning and Capitals during the Steven Stamkos and Ovechkin eras? You may enjoy this jog down history lane – much of which has been chronicled at PHT – while fans of these teams may find revived disdain for the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist, Penguins, and … Bryan Rust, specifically?

Hockey Reference was an excellent resource for this post, and it’s generally a recommended spot to nerd out about NHL history in general.

Oh, and before we get to the fun/trauma, here’s a fascinating find from Japers Rink. If this holds, the Capitals might need another big night from Braden Holtby.

2008

April 22: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT)

first round

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring with a power-play goal (Alex Ovechkin getting the primary assist, with short-term Cap Sergei Fedorov* getting the secondary assist). Ovechkin also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime, but Joffrey Lupul generated the clincher on the PP for Philly.

* – Yes, that really happened. No, you were not hallucinating. At least in that instance.

2009

April 28: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

first round

This was already an example of the type of playoff game the Capitals team of that era “wasn’t supposed to be able to win.” Semyon Varlamov only needed to make 14 of 15 saves. Backstrom assisted on an Alexander Semin goal, while Sergei Fedorov got the game-winner as basically his last true stand-out moment in the NHL.

May 13: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

second round

Ah, this is where the true torment began.

That Game 7 was the anticlimactic capper to what had been an epic second-round series, including a game where Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby exchanged hat tricks. Marc-Andre Fleury made a crucial save early on an Ovechkin semi-breakaway (after being tormented for much of the round), and the Penguins rattled off the first five goals to win in a laugher and make Ovechkin’s 11th goal of that postseason moot.

2010

April 28: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

first round

For one summer, Jaroslav Halak looked like the superstar goalie of Montreal’s future, not Carey Price. (Give the Habs credit for making the right, and brave, call there.) The shots on goal count was 42-16 in Washington’s favor, but the Habs pulled off the upset. Ovechkin absorbed the criticism admirably.

2011

April 27: Lightning 1, Penguins 0

first round

Remember that season where the Penguins made the playoffs with Jordan Staal as their top center because Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured? That was this year. Despite lacking firepower, the Penguins fired 36 shots on Dwayne Roloson, and he stopped all of them. Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal. Stamkos only generated one shot on goal during 16:13 TOI.

May 27: Bruins 1, Lightning 0

conference finals

Nathan Horton went from bottle thrower to Game 7 clincher, scoring the only tally of this one. Stamkos received just under 19 minutes of ice time, firing one SOG, and was on the ice for that Horton goal.

Oh yeah, and Stamkos earned big kudos for this.

2012

April 25: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

first round

Braden Holtby was in “beast mode” for maybe the first time while Ovechkin’s ice time was scrutinized. This was part of Dale Hunter’s brief run after Bruce Boudreau was fired. There were some successes, yet the hockey wasn’t exactly pretty.

May 12: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

second round

New York was able to gut out a win in which both Henrik Lundqvist and Holtby both played well. Was it mentioned that this wasn’t a pretty run?

2013

May 13: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

first round

This was the stretch where the Rangers – mainly Henrik Lundqvist – was really a nuisance for the Capitals. King Hank made 35 saves for this Game 7 shutout. Following this loss, Backstrom spoke about “learning to win in the playoffs.”

Neither team played a Game 7 in 2014, but they made up for it with four in 2015

April 27: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

first round

Evgeny Kuznetsov doesn’t just have a series-clinching goal against the Penguins to his name. He also generated the game-winner in Game 7 of this series. The slick center has a way to go before he elbows in on Justin Williams‘ clutch credentials, but the Lightning better keep an eye on him either way.

April 29: Lightning 2, Red Wings 0

first round

Ben Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout, helping the Lightning win despite only firing 15 shots on Petr Mrazek (who yielded a Braydon Coburn tally, while the other goal was an empty-netter). Hey, there were worries about Stamkos’ playoff scoring then, too.

May 13: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

second round

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, giving Lundqvist an earful in the process. That was highly entertaining, but the Rangers got the last laugh after Derek Stepan ended the game in overtime. Both Holtby and Lundqvist put out great performances in this one.

May 29: Lightning 2, Rangers 0

conference finals

Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat scored Tampa Bay’s two goals while Bishop stopped all 22 shots in a very tight Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning would go on to fall in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, yet this was quite the run for Tampa Bay.

2016

May 26: Penguins 2, Lightning 1

conference finals

The Bolts hope that tonight mirrors the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, rather than the following year, especially since their 2016 run began with the Lightning winning both of their first two series in five games.

Bryan Rust scored both of the Penguins’ goals while Andrei Vasilevskiy (37 out of 39 saves) helped to keep the Lightning in a game Pittsburgh often carried.

2017

May 10: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

second round

At the time, this seemed like the Capitals’ last great chance, falling to the Penguins for the second season in a row after a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Washington pushed this series to Game 7 after falling into a 3-1 hole, but it was not to be.

Bryan Rust scored another big Game 7 against the Penguins, while Marc-Andre Fleury made this series is parting gift for Pittsburgh, making some huge stops against Ovechkin.

After that loss, Barry Trotz wasn’t “emotionally prepared” to critique Ovechkin and others. What a difference a year and a hot lap makes, huh?

***

So, how will the May 23, 2018 entry end up looking? You won’t need to wait long until you find out.

Also, don’t be surprised if the losing team mutters “At least it wasn’t the Penguins” on the handshake line …

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

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.

Where does Alex Lyon’s 94-save performance rank in hockey history?

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Flyers prospect and Lehigh Valley Phantoms goalie Alex Lyon was a busy man on Wednesday night, as he turned aside 94 of 95 shots in the longest AHL game in history. The game was decided in the fifth overtime period and it ended six hours after it started. In total, they played 86:48 in overtime and in all, it lasted 146:48. That’s a workout!

Believe it or not, Lyon still fell short of setting an AHL record for most saves in a game.

So, how does this marathon game and Lyon’s 94 saves stack up against some of the similar performances in hockey history? Let’s take a look.

NHL: 

• Montreal Maroons vs. Detroit Red Wings – March 24, 1936

According to NHL.com, the longest game in NHL history ended in the sixth overtime period of the 1936 Stanley Cup Semifinal between the Montreal Maroons and Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won the game 1-0 on a goal by Mud Bruneteau after 116:30 of overtime was played.

Red Wings netminder Normie Smith apparently lost 12 pounds during the game. He turned aside 92 shots in the shutout victory. That remains an NHL record to this day. Fun fact: he won the Vezina Trophy the following year.

• Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs – April 3, 1933

Prior to the Maroons and Red Wings playing the longest game in history, the record was owned by the Leafs and Bruins. They also skated in six overtime periods, but they “only” played  104:46 of extra hockey before Toronto’s Ken Doraty scored to give the Leafs a 1-0 win. Fun fact: the general managers on both teams agreed that a coin-flip should decide the outcome of this game because it was dragging on too long. The players objected, so they kept playing.

• Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – May 4, 2000

Alright, finally a game that’s a little more recent than the previous two. Keith Primeau scored the game-winning goal in the fifth overtime period. On top of the 60 minutes they played in regulation, these two rivals skated for an additional 92:01.

Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher (57 saves on 58 shots) was busy, but he didn’t face as much rubber as Penguins netminder Ron Tugnutt, who turned aside 70 of 72 shots in the loss.

The three games we just mentioned are the only ones in NHL history that were longer than last night’s AHL game game between the Phantoms and Checkers. 

• New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals – April 18. 1987

This game is actually the 10th longest contest in NHL history (68:47 of overtime was played before Isles forward Pat Lafontaine scored the winner), but Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey was forced to make 73 saves on 75 shots. The NHL only started officially tracking shots on goal as a statistic in 1956, so that’s why many consider Hrudey’s performance to be an NHL record even though we know Normie Smith stopped more shots back in 1936.

• Vancouver Canucks vs. Dallas Stars – April 11, 2007

Roberto Luongo‘s playoff debut was pretty long. After giving up four goals in regulation, he had to play another 78:06 of overtime to come away with his first postseason win. He also had to work pretty hard to get it, as he turned aside 72 of 76 shots the Stars sent his way. The 76 shots against are an unofficial NHL record, but he fell one save short of tying Hrudey’s mark of 73.

AHL: 

• Philadelphia Phantoms vs. Albany River Rats – April 25, 2008

Former NHL goalie Michael Leighton turned aside 98 of 101 shots the Phantoms sent his way in a 3-2 loss in five overtimes. The overtime portion of the game lasted 82:58 before Ryan Potulny scored the game-winner for Philadelphia.

“It doesn’t matter how many shots they got, they got the win. It’s definitely disappointing for myself. It was fun to be a part of a game like that, but you want to end it on a winning note,” Leighton said at the time.

That’s gotta be a tough way to lose.

• Hamilton Bulldogs vs. Houston Aeros – May 30, 2003

Before Leighton owned the record for most saves in an AHL game, that mark belonged to former Edmonton Oilers netminder Ty Conklin. During the Calder Cup Final, Conklin turned aside 83 of 84 shots in a 2-1 win over the Aeros, which ended in four overtime periods.

EUROPE:

Storhamar Dragons vs. Sparta Warriors – March 13, 2017

This Norwegian League clash lasted longer than any of the other games on this list. The Dragons eventually won the game, 2-1, in the eighth overtime period. The game ended over eight hours after it started.

The Dragons outshot the Warriors 96-93, which means the Warriors goalie stopped 94 shots, while the Dragons netminder turned aside 92 shots.

MORE:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins should target a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency

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Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, Rick Nash was … well, Rick Nash during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fair or not, the typical narrative stuck. Nash generated a mountain of scoring chances (39 shots on goal in just 12 games), but connected on precious few, finishing with three goals and two assists for five points. It says a lot about his career-long playoff woes that his 7.7 shooting percentage during this run was actually a bit better than his career mark of six percent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nash is far from the only player outside of the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) who fell short of the mark, but he stands out as being a guy who’s unlikely to return considering his expiring contract. Whether they bounce back or not, guys like David Krejci and David Backes are locked down through 2020-21.

[Lightning eliminate Bruins in Game 5]

Ultimately, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should look to free agency and ask himself: “Who can give us a little more than Rick Nash and other depth players?”

An unclear window

The Bruins deserve a ton of credit for drafting and developing some real gems in Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie McAvoy. Even so, the Bruins are powered by some players whose windows of dominance could start to close. Brad Marchand will turn 30 on May 11. Krejci and Bergeron are both 32. Backes is 34. Zdeno Chara is still somehow a top pairing defenseman at 41.

Some aging curve questions are scary, and doubling down with a free agent can be really scary. That said, you never know when your window will close as a contender; the Bruins would be wise to take their best shots over the next season or two.

Intriguing wingers

The Bruins could very well get a younger version of Nash in some free agents who bring some size and skill to the table.

There’s a decent chance that Evander Kane will not hit the market, but if he does, the Bruins could conceivably be a good fit considering all of the veterans they have on hand. Kane isn’t the only interesting option, either.

James van Riemsdyk stands out as one of the more interesting fits. While there’s some risk that JVR could be the next Bobby Ryan (a consistent 20+ goal guy who was once cheap who could then sign an albatross deal), but the American winger has shown that he can score, even when he’s receiving minimal ice time. That said, van Riemsdyk is already 29 and hasn’t always been the most prolific playoff point producer, either.

Like Kane with the Sharks, it’s unclear if James Neal or David Perron will be back with the Vegas Golden Knights, but both are interesting considerations for Boston. Neal could add even more snarl to a lineup that already includes Backes and Marchand, not to mention his ability to score goals with remarkable consistency. Perron, meanwhile, would be the slicker option, and possibly the cheaper one?

Centers

Let’s get this out of the way first: any team with a shot at John Tavares should do what it takes to make it happen, even if it calls for creative trades. The Bruins are no exception, though it’s tough to image Tavares wearing the spoked B.

Another tough-to-imagine scenario: the return of Joe Thornton. That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it?

Now, the Nash example calls more for winger comparisons, but who’s to say that the Bruins wouldn’t dip into the market for a mid-level center? Such a gameplan could be fruitful if management believes that Krejci could be liberated by a Claude Giroux-style move to the wing, or more advantageous matchups as a third-line center. Among other ideas.

Paul Stastny would be intriguing.

He’s not the sexiest scorer, but Stastny is a strong two-way player. It’s tough to imagine the Jets being able to afford re-signing him considering that they’re going to have to give big raises to Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine going forward. There’s quite a bit of risk with Stastny being 32, but he makes some stylistic sense, too.

The funniest idea

Hey, Leo Komarov is a pending UFA, and he obviously has chemistry with Marchand …

(Ideally) cheaper options

Generally speaking, NHL teams are better off exploiting the bargain bin instead of taking big swings. The Bruins have seen that firsthand, as the Backes deal is one they’d almost certainly want to take back. Many of the above ideas are expressed while realizing that, eventually, those contracts will probably be a headache.

Boston may instead be better off going short-term or cheaper, possibly with more than one signing.

Patrick Maroon‘s value should be interesting to follow. Will a team overpay for a big guy who can score a bit, or will his solid work with New Jersey go under the radar?

The Bruins might be better off going after Maroon or fellow short-time Devil Michael Grabner. Thomas Vanek is another interesting consideration. While he’s become a notably one-dimensional player, Vanek showed that he can really boost a team’s offense. In a specialist role, Vanek might excel, and the Bruins should keep an eye on him if the market is tepid.

***

Look, players usually hit free agency in the NHL for a reason. These are players who, for whatever reason, end up being deemed expendable.

The Bruins and other teams must look at free agency as finding the cherry on top, rather than some cure-all. Rick Nash fell short of that mark, but maybe one of these options could make the difference?

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.

Penguins’ top line is doing all of the heavy lifting

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PITTSBURGH — Through four games the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have provided most of what was expected from them in their second round series. It is an evenly matched series that looks like it might go the distance, there has been a lot of nastiness, there has been some controversy, and the two biggest superstars in the NHL  — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — have been taking turns delivering haymakers for their respective teams on the scoreboard.

In Game 3 on Tuesday it was Ovechkin helping to continue to carry the Capitals. In the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, it was Crosby’s turn again as the duo of he and Jake Guentzel continued to dominate the postseason, scoring a pair of goals — both off the stick of Guentzel — to help the Penguins even the series at two games apiece.

With his two-goal effort on Thursday Guentzel is now up to 10 goals and is leading the league in playoff goal for the second year in a row. He scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games a year ago. Almost all of his damage this season has come alongside Crosby, and it is not a stretch to suggest that line has been helping to keep the Penguins afloat in these playoffs. They are quite literally the only line that is providing offense for them in this series.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Following Thursday’s win the Penguins have scored 10 goals in the series, while all of them have come with Crosby on the ice. He has had a hand in six of them, scoring two and assisting on four others. He did not factor into Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winning goal on Thursday, but he was on the ice as part of the Penguins’ power play.

There are a few ways to look at this.

This obviously is a big part of what makes Crosby the best player in the game (or at least 1A and 1B with Connor McDavid) and one of the best players of all-time. He can change a game and carry a team for an extended period of time. That is what he is trying to do right now for the Penguins.

“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s the best player in the game. He plays his best when the stakes are high. He plays at both end of the rink. We rely on him to defend as much as we rely on him to score goals and create offense, and he’s really good at both.

“So it doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan continued. “He’s done it since I’ve been his coach, that has been my experience with him. I just have so much respect for the type of person he is, the type of player that he is, the care factor that he has for the team and winning, the way he always elevates his game for whatever our team needs. If we need a center to take a faceoff and defend a one-goal game when it’s a 6-on-5 situation, he’s the guy. If we need a goal and there’s a faceoff in the offensive zone, he’s the guy. That’s what separates him from every other player in the game. He is so multi-dimensional, there are so many layers to his game that no matter who he plays with he finds a way to have success and he does it night in and night out.”

With 19 points this postseason he already has as many points as he had in 24 postseason games in 2015-16 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and is only seven points off of his total from a year ago (when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy).

Crazy numbers.

[Related: Penguins, Capitals nastiness boils over again in Letang-Oshie fight]

Another crazy number: Of the 38 goals the Penguins have scored this postseason, Crosby has been on the ice for 28 of them. That is 74 percent!  If there is a concern from a Pittsburgh perspective it is the fact that percentage is probably a little too high and probably not a great recipe for sustained success. As great as Crosby and Guentzel have been together no one line can do that every single night for an entire postseason. Eventually they will have an off night. Eventually they get shut down for a game or two. Eventually the puck will not go in. The Penguins’ modus operandi the past two postseasons has been about depth and balanced scoring from all four lines. In 2015-16 Crosby was only on the ice for 41 percent of the Penguins’ playoff goals. A year ago it was 45 percent. They were getting production from everybody. This postseason, and especially in this series, they have not always been getting that.

Part of the Penguins’ depth problem this postseason has been the fact they simply have not been as healthy. Evgeni Malkin missed three games — including the first two games of this series — due to a lower body injury, and even though he scored on Thursday night still may not be 100 percent.

Carl Hagelin also missed three games after he was hit by Claude Giroux in Game 6 of the Philadelphia series.

Beyond those two, Phil Kessel has not looked himself (he could be fighting through an injury of his own) and has been a complete non-factor. That is a huge change from the past two postseasons when he was at times their biggest difference-maker.

Derick Brassard has not quite made the offensive impact the Penguins were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline and have put seemingly demoted him to fourth-line duty. Conor Sheary has two goals in his past 36 playoff games.

On Thursday the Penguins attempted to shuffle their lines a bit by dropping Patric Hornqvist from the Crosby-Gentuzel down to the second line alongside Malkin and Hagelin. Sullivan explained that was an effort to get other lines going, while also bringing some two-way balance to the Malkin line.

“We’re trying to find ways to get more production from other than one line,” said Sullivan.

“[Hornqvist] brings a certain dimension to any line particular line we put him on. When you look at the stretch Geno went through, probably a two or two-and-a-half month stretch in the regular season where he was filling the net, for the most part he was playing with [Hagelin] and [Hornqvist].

“Those two guys I think they force Geno to play a more straight ahead game and challenge him to shoot the puck more. [Hornqvist] is a guy that goes to the net, he wants the puck on the net, he’s constantly on him to shoot the puck. So we think that his presence on that line helps Geno play the type of game that he needs to play in the playoffs to have success. Do we tinker with that line or leave it as it is and try to move other people around. That is the direction we went with tonight, it is not etched in stone, we’l look at the game, see what we liked and make decisions accordingly.”

[Related: Guentzel helps Penguins tie series with Capitals]

Leaning on the Crosby-Guentzel line to this point has them in the second-round, now facing what is essentially a best-of-three series against the Metropolitan Division champion Capitals. They have done that will getting very little production from a line that does not have Crosby on it.

On one hand, that is a pretty good position to be in, and if they can get one or two of those other lines going again it could help propel them on another deep playoff run. On the other hand, if they do not get going they are only going to go as far as Crosby and Guentzel can carry them.  Relying on one line to do it all offensively is an awfully big ask. Even if it is a line centered by a player as great as Sidney Crosby.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.