Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 3

The Washington Capitals came back from the dead last night, crawled back into the coffin in the last two minutes, and then sprung back to, if not full vim and vigor, into a more or less upright position with their 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.  It was your standard 60 minutes of regulation with a short, by NHL postseason standards, overtime, but it was as if the teams put on a production of “The Ring of the Niebelung” in Pittsburgh.  The cousins found it an interesting game, to say the least…

Fearless… OK, let’s get right to it.  Dirty or not?

Cheerless… Kunitz should be kicked out of the country for that hit on T.J. Oshie.

Fearless… Funny.  Of course, we mean the attempted assassination of Sidney Crosby by Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen with the game barely five minutes old.  First, Ovechkin clocks Crosby in side of the head, dulling his senses, then he slewfoots Crosby, kicking out his left foot to put him off-balance as he heads through the low slot.  Then, in the coup-de-grace, Matt Niskanen, encamped on the grassy knoll of the right wing faceoff circle, cross checked him in the face, snapping Crosby’s head back, and to the left…back, and to the left…back, and to the left…

Cheerless… I ain’t the sharpest knife in the chandelier, but from the time Crosby came across the blue line to when he collided with Niskanen, it was about four seconds.  Hockey is a fast game.  Do you think Alex Ovechkin told himself… “I must break him,” circled in behind him, recollected that Crosby had a history of concussion issues and thought, “hey, if I whack his head, maybe I turn his brains into pirozhki,” whacked him, then slewfooted him on purpose, knowing Matt Niskanen was 20 feet away looking to deliver the kill shot… all in four seconds?  Who are you, Rob Rossi


Cheerless… Back to the actual game, what is with this team and horking up leads?  Last night was the fifth time in nine games in the postseason that the Caps had a lead and lost it.  They are 3-2 in those games, but really…stop doing that!

Fearless… It is part of a bigger problem.  Only the Ottawa Senators have allowed more second period goals (12) than the Caps (11), and no team has allowed more third period goals than Washington (9).  Shoot, no team at all has allowed more goals than the Caps (27), period.  They have more overtime goals scored than any team in the playoffs so far (four), but that’s in no small part a product of losing leads.  The Caps have a fine plus-4 goal differential in the first periods of games so far, but they have a minus-five in the second periods and a minus-3 in the third periods of games.  If they don’t end that nonsense, start thinking about tee times.


Fearless… This was just the third time in ten tries against the Penguins that the Caps won a Game 3 and the first time they did it since 1995.  The only time they beat the Pens in a series was when they won a Game 3 on their way to the win.  It was the first time in six tries that they won a Game 3 in Pittsburgh. 

Cheerless… Yeah, how ‘bout that?  Since Ovechkin has been in the league the Caps are 2-2 in series in which they win Game 3.  Let’s not read too much into that, okay?  Game 4 doesn’t seem to matter much, either.  The Caps are 4-3 when winning Game 4 in those same years (including a series win against Toronto this year).


Cheerless… Three games in this series, the third and fourth lines have a total of one point.  And even that one – an assist by Lars Eller – was recorded skating with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie (Ovechkin got the goal).  Last year against the Pens, the Caps third and fourth lines recorded four points by four different players in six games (Jay Beagle and Andre Burakovsky had goals, Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera had assists). Haven’t we seen this movie?  Are we expecting it to end any different if it’s just a remake of the same movie?

Fearless… The Eller-Wilson-Burakovsky line is a 72.73 Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in the postseason.  Of 167 forwards having skated at least 50 5-on-5 minutes, Burakovsky has the best individual Corsi-for at fives in the league (66.01).  Wilson is tenth (60.48), and Eller is 12th (60.00; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  Either these guys just forgot how to get puck to and into the net, or they have had the worst luck imaginable from a fancystats perspective.


Fearless… Talk about worst luck imaginable.  The Caps have a two-goal lead late, and the Pens get one on a shot from Evgeni Malkin that looked to nick the heel of Karl Alzner’s skate, altering the trajectory of the puck upward enough to clear Braden Holtby’s left pad, then they get another when a shot hit T.J. Oshie and changed direction past Holtby.  But he was solid before that and sucked it up after for his best performance of the series and one of, if not his best of the entire postseason to date.  Just in time, I’d say.

Cheerless… In nine games so far, Holtby has allowed fewer than three goals in consecutive games just once (Games 5 and 6 against Toronto, in which he allowed one goal in each).  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and pronounce him “cured” of whatever yips he had.


Peerless… The dominant story over the next two days is going to be the health of Sidney Crosby and the likelihood of his return for Game 4, or perhaps even the series.  There are a lot of ways this can play out in terms of whether his absence advantages the Penguins (steely team resolve, Malkin doing well over his career in Crosby’s absence) or the Capitals (not having to face the game’s best player in addition to the absence of Pittsburgh’s best defender in Kris Letang and their number one goalie, Matt Murray).

The way we see this is a situation that provides the Caps with another opportunity to demonstrate the difference between this team and its predecessors.  They have to be a team with no memory and no conscience.  They just need to stick to business, play the team in front of them, assert their will, and stand on their throat.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Yeah, if it was, I’d be centering Fearless and Cheerless for an NHL team.  Don’t see that happening soon.  Let’s just hope the Caps find a way to find their inner ruthlessness and come home with a tied series that looks more like one to their advantage.

Washington Capitals... Liars, Dirty Deed Doers, Cowards

Those who write about hockey for major media outlets aspire to be called and given the respect accorded to “journalists.”  The vast majority of those writers, reporters, and commentators merit the title.  Then again, some don’t, at least not all of the time.  Hockey is an intense game, and sometimes the results on the ice strip away one’s journalistic sense of objectivity, and one becomes less a journalist and more a “fan” in the literal – “fanatic” – sense of the term.

And sometimes, one finds the rare instance that transcends bizarre and careens into irrational screed.

One almost expects Rod Serling to present a “Twilight Zone” monologue to preface this morning’s offering from Rob Rossi on the events last night that forced Sidney Crosby from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals.  With barely five minutes gone in the contest, the Penguins were attacking in the Capitals’ zone, and this happened…

Rossi’s unhinged rant on the play (one hesitates to call it his “take”) can be read in full here.  But the lede says it all… “Alex Ovechkin shouldn't play another game in these Stanley Cup playoffs.”

Let’s leave for a moment (which Rossi does in short order) the fact that the injury Crosby sustained appeared to be the product of a collision with Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen in which Niskanen cross-checked Crosby as he was off balance after skating through the top of the Washington crease (Niskanen was charged a major penalty for cross checking and a game misconduct). 

He saves his best (or worst, depending on where you stand on journalistic detachment) for Alex Ovechkin.  First, he accuses Ovechkin of “carelessly lift[ing] his stick into Crosby’s head, forcing the NHL’s sturdiest skater to stagger into Niskanen.”  But he immediately contradicts himself and claims that “Ovechkin, who can’t beat Crosby on the ice, decided to remove him from it (emphasis added).” 

Then Rossi, who seemed to write this as a stream of enraged consciousness, doubled down on the theme of premeditation, wondering out loud about “what that closed-door meeting called by Capitals players was really about after their blowout defeat in Game 2…”

Not satisfied with that, he then triples-down (if there is such a thing), attributing malice to the Caps as a team and calling them liars before the fact “if they say it wasn’t about eliminating Crosby.”  Can you “quadruple-down?”  If you can, Rossi does, accusing (okay, “doubt[ing] very much there wasn’t an intent” on the part of) the Capitals of injuring Crosby intentionally.

So, in the space of barely 100 words, Rossi describes a scenario in which the Caps are blown out against the Penguins, meet in their dark lair to devise a dastardly plan to eliminate the game’s best player because they can’t beat him on the ice, then – in the space of four seconds (go ahead, time it from the moment Crosby crosses the blue line with the puck until he collides with Niskanen…we did) – the Caps spring their nefarious plan.  In this telling, you can almost hear the Capitals bench shouting in unison, “NOW!!!” as Crosby skates by the players’ bench.

I can’t defend any player who uses his stick indiscriminately, but when Rossi describes Ovechkin as “filthy,” who uses “his magic wand” with the intent to injure, who “holds high the stick he often swings at opponents,” let’s not forget that Crosby has his own history of creative uses of his stick. 

There is Crosby doing his “piƱata” thing on Buffalo Sabre Ryan O’Reilly…

There is Crosby taking a whack at the hand of Ottawa Senator defenseman Marc Methot and shattering his finger…

And sometimes, he doesn’t even need his stick, as Boris Valabik found out…

Crosby’s body of work as far as “dirty” plays is concerned could almost be its own YouTube channel (search on “Crosby dirty plays”…bring a lunch, you’ll be a while).  But hey, for “The Face of Hockey,” as Rossi describes him, it’s just part of the package, so to speak.

But this isn’t a “your player is dirtier than mine” contest.  Let’s keep our eye on the ball…or puck.  No hockey fan, not even a Washington Capitals fan, could look at the scene of Crosby, face down on the ice with his legs splayed behind him, and not feel sick.  This time of year is for the best players to play their best, and no one – not players, fans, coaches (or journalists, for that matter) – want to see any of the best players on earth injured in their quest.

I write in this space as a hobby and an unabashed fan of the Washington Capitals.  Journalism is not my day job, and it is something to which I have no aspirations.  In a way it makes me respect those for whom it is their calling that much more.  I lost some of it for Rob Rossi resorting to this cheap attack that sounded like a fan at a sports bar far more than it did a professional who has a “decade of experience” covering the sport.

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 - Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (OT)

In the 1980’s the television “mini-series” was all the rage. A drama with a limited run of episodes provided suspense, scandal, and escapist drama that riveted audiences. The third installment of this mini-series featuring the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins provided all of that, with many twists and turns and unexpected plot lines before the Caps emerged with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 to make it a competitive series again and perhaps salvage their season.

The Caps scored first for the first time in the series, posting a power play goal in the first period. With the Caps on the 5-on-3 man advantage, Alex Ovechkin collected a loose puck at the top of the offensive zone and fed it deep to Nicklas Backstrom at the goal line extended to the left of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Backstrom tried to feed the puck to Justin Williams in the low slot, but Fleury got the blade of his stick on the pass. He deflected the puck up and off teammate Ian Cole, and it fluttered over Fleury into the net to make it a 1-0 game 13:05 into the period.

The score held up into the third period, where the Caps added to it. It was Pittsburgh being the victim of a turnover, Trevor Daley unable to handle a pass that skittered out to the neutral zone where Williams pick it up. He skated down the left wall leading a 3-on-1 rush. He fed the puck across to Marcus Johansson skating down the middle, and Johansson wrapped a pass around defenseman Olli Maatta to Evgeny Kuznetsov camped to the left of Fleury. Kuznetsov had Fleury down and out, giving him time and space to lift the puck over him into the top of the net at the 9:46 mark to make it 2-0.

With the clock winding down in regulation, it appeared the Caps had things well in hand, but the Penguins tallied a pair of empty net goals in the last two minutes to tie the game. First, it was Evgeni Malkin one-timing a pass from Phil Kessel from the right wing circle past goalie Braden Holtby’s left pad on the short side with 1:53 left in regulation to make it 2-1. Then, 48 seconds later, Justin Schultz tied the game with his first goal of the postseason, one-timing a feed from Malkin that clicked off the stick of the Caps’ T.J. Oshie past Holtby to send the game to overtime.

In overtime, Trevor Daley was sent to the penalty box for holding Marcus Johansson.  The penalty might have prevented a game-winning scoring chance, but it merely postponed the outcome.  On the ensuing power play, Kevin Shattenkirk skating down the middle in the neutral zone and passed off the puck to Nicklas Backstrom at the Penguin blue line.  Backstrom skated down the left wing wall, and then fed the puck back to Shattenkirk. Pulling the puck to his forehand and sliding to his left to get a better shooting angle, Shattenkirk let fly with a shot that beat Fleury on his blocker side and inched the Caps closer to tying the series with the 3-2 overtime win.

Other stuff…

-- The win makes the Caps 4-2 in extra time games in this postseason and 28-34 in overtime games in franchise history.

-- Kevin Shattenkirk’s overtime goal was his first career overtime tally and his first career playoff game-winning goal.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist, his goal was his second of the postseason in eight games, doubling his output from last season in 12 postseason games.  It was his first two-point game in the playoffs since he had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 6 of their 2015 second round series.  He had gone 21 postseason games without a multi-point game until last night.

-- Justin Williams had a pair of assists, giving him five assists and eight points in the postseason, the latter ranked third on the club.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist of his own, his goal tying him with Alex Ovechkin for the team lead in the postseason (four) and his assist giving him six, tied with T.J. Oshie for the team lead.  His ten points in the postseason leads all Capitals.

-- Alex Ovechkin had an assist, giving him points in six of his last eight postseason games and points in each of his last five playoff games against the Penguins (2-6-8).

-- The Caps out-shot the Penguins, 33-30, the third time in three games they out-shot Pittsburgh.  Last spring, they managed to out-shoot the Penguins only twice in six games.

-- Andre Burakovsky had an odd night, and not in a good way.  He skated just 9:11 for the game, a career low for a playoff game.  He did not get a shift in the last eight-plus minutes of the second period.  Part of that was the Caps taking two penalties in the last half of the second period (both by Kuznetsov), but it was still a light night, ice time wise.

-- Braden Holtby followed up his first-ever yanking from the crease in Game 2 with a solid performance, despite the two late goals.  The second of them, a deflection off the stick of teammate T.J. Oshie, was one of those weird bounces that confound hockey analysts and set Caps fans to pulling their hair out.  He stopped the first 26 shots he saw in the contest before allowing those two goals on three shots late in the third period.  He stopped the only shot he faced in the extra session.

-- The Caps dominated the shot attempts once again, out-attempting the Penguins, 45-35 at 5-on-5 (56.25 CF%).  The Caps have a Corsi-for at fives of 64.4 percent for the series (numbers from Corsica.hockey).

In the end…

This was, quite literally (given the misfortune befalling Sidney Crosby in the first period when he was cross-checked by Matt Niskanen and had to leave the game) a knock-down, drag-out battle.  The teams were credited with 67 hits between them, not an extraordinary number, but still a reflection of the intensity.  It was a game that seemed to play more to the Capitals’ strengths than the Penguins.  But don’t get cocky.  Yet again, the Caps failed to close the deal after taking a lead.  This could have ended up being among the most bitter of losses in team history, especially so given that the Pens were missing the best player on the planet for all but the first 5:24 of the game.  It was that close.  But the Caps leaned over the edge of the cliff, looked into the abyss, and sneered at it.  We will see if they can keep from creeping so close again to the edge when these teams meet again on Wednesday night.