Thursday, April 27, 2017

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 - Washington Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals opened their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins by digging themselves a hole, dropping a 3-2 decision on Thursday night.

After a scoreless first period, the Penguins struck twice in short order to start the second period.  Patric Hornqvist nudged a loose puck in the neutral zone to Jake Guentzel, who broke into the offensive zone with Sidney Crosby on a 2-on-1 break.  Guentzel fed the puck across to Crosby on his right, and Crosby swept the puck past goalie Braden Holtby’s glove at the 12 second mark of the period to give the Pens a 1-0 lead. 

Crosby struck again less than a minute later.  Guentzel pried the puck off the left wing wall and fed it to Olli Maatta entering the offensive zone for a one-timer.  Holtby made the save, but not cleanly, the puck dribbling out to the low slot where Hornqvist got a stick on it.  It was enough to nudge the puck to Crosby closing on the right side, and he buried it past Holtby to make it 2-0, 1:04 into the period.

That was how the score remained until late in the period, when the Caps halved the deficit.  John Carlson started the play by separating Evgeni Malkin from the puck just inside the Caps’ blue line.  T.J. Oshie picked it up and skated it out, carrying it into the Penguins’ zone where he dropped it for Lars Eller.  From the left point, Eller fed Alex Ovechkin cutting into the zone, and Ovechkin circled to the top of the left wing circle, where he snapped a shot that beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 2-1 at the 18:17 mark.

The Caps continued pressuring the Pens in the third period, and it paid dividends mid-way through.  Matt Niskanen scooped up a loose puck in the right wing circle, curled out to the right wing wall, then fired a pass across to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who one-timed the puck into the open side of the net behind Fleury to tie the game 8:05 into the period.

Four minutes later, the Pens got what would be the game-winner when Justin Schultz sent a pass up from deep in the defensive zone to Scott Wilson at the Caps’ blue line.  Wilson found Nick Bonino cutting down the middle undefended, and Bonino converted the break with a shot past Holtby’s blocker at the 12:36 mark.  Fleury did the rest, holding the Caps off the board to give the Pens a 1-0 lead in the series.

Other stuff…

-- The game-winner was the second consecutive game-winner for Nick Bonino against the Caps in the postseason.  He had the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 last spring to eliminate the Caps in the second round.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a difficult night in the faceoff circle, losing 13 of 17 faceoffs (23.5 percent).

-- The Caps out-hit the Penguins, 41-17, Alex Ovechkin leading the team with six.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov led the Caps with ten shot attempts (four on goal, one goal) and one of the stranger goal celebrations seen in these parts.

-- Matt Niskanen had an assist, his first point in the postseason since Game 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

-- Kuznetsov has two goals in the postseason.  Oddly enough, both came in losses (the other was in a 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto in Game 3 of the first round).

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal was his fourth of the postseason and the third time he scored a goal in a Caps loss.

-- The Caps had 19 missed shots in the contest, five of them recorded by Andre Burakovsky. 

-- Think three goals matters?  Braden Holtby is now 3-16 in the postseason when allowing three or more goals, 2-7 when allowing three.

-- What doesn’t belong in this comparison?  The Caps out-attempted the Penguins, 72-32, at 5-on-5 (63.68 percent Corsi-for); they out-shot the Pens, 30-18, at fives; and they were outscored by Pittsburgh, 3-2 at 5-on-5.

In the end…

Caps fans might take solace in the fact that the Caps dominated the Penguins over the last 38 minutes, after the second Pittsburgh goal.  And folks might point to the fact that of the four Games 1 in the second round, the road team won three of them, making one wonder if there is a sport in which the home arena advantage means less than in the NHL.  On the other hand, this was a squandered opportunity.  Dominating possession means nothing if it doesn’t translate into goals.  The Penguins took advantage of the rare opportunities they got – a 2-on-1 and a mini-breakaway.  The Caps did not take advantage of the relentless pressure they applied in the last half of the contest.  Is this a script, or a blip?  Guess we’ll have to wait for Game 2 to find out.