Alexander Ovechkin played in his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday night and his teammates made it a special one for him defeating the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in Pittsburgh, 3-1, to wrap up their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title. Philipp Grubauer made his first ever start against the Pens and he was outstanding making 36 saves. T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson scored for the Caps before Patrick Hornqvist tallied on a rebound with 3:45 remaining to end #31’s shutout bid.
The Caps final three games, at St. Louis on Monday night and then home against the Predators and Devils on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, are essentially meaningless from a standings perspective. Washington’s first round playoff opponent will be the first wildcard team and right now that situation is as clear as mud.
The triumph improves Coach Barry Trotz’ team to 47-25-7 (101 points), which is right in the 100 to 105 point range that I predicted before the season when many were losing their collective minds over General Manager Brian MacLellan’s offseason decisions. BMac knew what he was doing by focusing up the middle of the ice and the Capitals will now go into the post season for the fourth straight year in his tenure after the final disastrous season of the George McPhee era ended with Adam Oates as head coach back in 2014.
The following bullets are my thoughts and analysis on the win in Pittsburgh as we head into the final week of the NHL season (hey, it’s Masters week, too, so FORE!).
Stone Cold – There’s no doubt that the biggest reason the Penguins defeated the Caps in last season’s playoffs was due to the stellar play of Marc Andre-Fleury in net. On Sunday night, Grubauer took advantage of the start and seemed to really have the Penguins number. Granted the Pens played on Saturday night against Montreal, but Philipp was exceptional and earned the game’s number one star. Grubi stopped all 12 shots on goal the Penguins fired on their five power plays and he also got a nice break when Evgeni Malkin’s laser on a five on three advantage in period two hit iron. Luck is a part of the game and Washington had its share in this one. Crosby fanned on a shot in the third period that the German goaltender was able to glove. However, the Capitals had some great looks, too, that they didn’t get good wood on, including a couple of Ovechkin shots that he just couldn’t put up and over a prone Matt Murray (31 saves). The most important position in the post season is goalie and with Grubauer playing outstanding and Holtby rebounding into form, Washington has to feel strong about that spot for next week and beyond.
Starting Fast – The Capitals have not had many great starts this calendar year, but on Sunday on NBC Sports Channel, they came out well. Ovi nearly scored early in front, but Murray was able to stop it when Alex couldn’t get full control of the pass for one of his patented Gr8 shots. Washington kept pushing the pace though, and they gave the Pens a dose of their own medicine scoring on the rush. John Carlson got the puck up to Andre Burakovsky to give the Caps a three on two entering the offensive zone. Burkie then put a sweet pass on Oshie’s stick on the right wing side of the ice and the Osh Babe beat Murray five hole, like a rented mule, just 6:25 into the game. Getting the first goal was really important in this one because the Pens had played the night before and would need momentum plus the crowd for adrenaline. They would not receive that, pretty much all night.
Tactic Change – When Washington was in Pittsburgh on February 2nd, they found themselves in a track meet affair and lost, 7-4. Trying to play run and gun hockey with the Penguins is a recipe for disaster and the Caps proved it that night. This time, however, the Capitals made some adjustments to throttle the Pens rush game. Once they got ahead, instead of trying to chase the black and gold in the offensive zone, they backed out and clogged up the neutral zone passing lanes. It was a very 1990’s New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap style of hockey. As a result, the Pens were unable to utilize their stretch or flip passes once Coach Trotz’ team went into that configuration. The few odd man opportunities the Penguins received were the result of offensive zone turnovers. The Caps need to continue to clean those up, but they were certainly better structurally against Pittsburgh than they’ve been in the previous three 2017-18 regular season matchups.
Feeling Too Much Shame – If there was one thing to not like about Sunday’s game, it was the five penalties the Capitals took that put the Pens on man advantage situations. Pittsburgh has the best power play in the league and to gift them four of those opportunities was playing with fire. I didn’t like Chandler Stephenson’s hold, the too many men infraction, Matt Niskanen’s delay of game, and Ovechkin’s slash, they were unnecessary. The only penalty that occurred to negate a scoring chance was Tom Wilson’s on Malkin. #71 is a beast and he’s been on fire, so sometimes you have to break the rules to stop him. Fortunately Grubauer, Brooks Orpik (team high 5:57 of shorthanded time), Carlson, Niskanen, Lars Eller (4:04 of PK time) and the other forwards deployed while shorthanded did a great job. Hornqvist is an absolute force in front of the net and you need size to battle him to allow your goalies to see the shots. Orpik and Carlson had the lion share of that duty on Sunday.
Fly By Night – It’s no secret the highly skilled and talent Penguins love to RUSH the puck with their speed to create chances and as stated earlier, the Capitals throttled that primarily with a tactic change. In addition, however, they used the RUSH to their advantage, too. Washington’s second goal came eight seconds after a great penalty kill as Orlov skated up the middle of the ice and used the Pens defensemen as a screen. Dima shot from the slot and it beat Murray to make it 2-0 with 6:14 left in the middle frame. That goal seemed to really deflate the Penguins and their fans. It was a simple play by the Russian defensemen and the Caps continued to pour shots on Murray as they went up the ice once they had the lead. Too often the Capitals get into trouble by trying to be fancy at the offensive blue line, but on Sunday night they did what their coaches have asked of them, they put the puck on net or behind the opposing defensemen instead of trying to beat guys one on one. It was smart hockey, they generated 34 shots on net doing so, and the Penguins typically use that style as well as any team in the league. Hopefully Washington continues to play smart as they did on Sunday in the post season. The cross ice plays in April and beyond often end up getting you earlier tee times.
Bad Blood – Nobody likes to lose, but the Penguins got downright dirty at the end of this one. Hornqvist slashed Carlson and Orpik in frustration and the latter infraction earned him a late penalty that all but ended this contest. Malkin then went totally mental and interfered with Oshie in the neutral zone and sent his stick flying into the Caps bench. The Osh Babe took exception and got into it with Geno. With the linesman trying to send Malkin to the showers, #71 then went crazy trying to go after Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 assist). I’m sure #92 was giving him the business in their native Russian tongue, too. It was pretty clear the Pens were trying to set the tone for the next time these two teams could meet, which would likely be in round two. Even Mark “Hot Plate” Recchi found himself heading to the locker room early when the zebras kicked him out of the game for verbal abuse. It was a bad look for Mike Sullivan’s team and he’s no choir boy either.
The End – Officially, the game ended after the Penguins late hissy fit, but when Wilson deflected Niskanen’s shot past Murray just 23 seconds into period three to increase the score to 3-0, this game was pretty much over. Again, putting pucks at or towards the net with bodies going there is the way you win big hockey games. If Washington employs that style more often, the end of this season could be something special.
Notes: Jay Beagle suffered an upper body injury in period one and didn’t return. He only played 3:22 and Coach Trotz stated afterwards he’s probably not playing against the Blues…I’d like to see Oshie and Orpik get the night off, too. Those guys play a hard style so they need to be physically ready for next week. Both have missed games recently due to minor injuries, so it would be best to get both healthy…shot attempts were 59-57 for the Pens, but their edge primarily came from the power play. Washington was very good at five on five…both teams went 0 for 5 on the power play…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:58. Kris Letang played the most for Pittsburgh with 25:08…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 35-34, which wasn’t bad since Beagle was done in period one. Eller was 9-6 while Sidney Crosby went 16-9 for the home team…Devante Smith-Pelly led the Caps in hits with seven. He also logged 2:41 of shorthanded time with Beags out of the game…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, including four on net, and four hits in 22:47 of ice time…Hits were 33-30 for the Caps.