Why this Capitals win is Huge

0-13.

That was the record for the four pro sports teams in Washington D.C. when a chance to go to a Conference Final was on the line dating back to 1998 entering last night’s Game 6 between the Capitals and Penguins, a 2-1 overtime win for the Caps that made that record 1-13. The Capitals accounted for six of those losses. Alex Ovechkin and the Caps finishing with their faces in the rear ends of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins has been the face of this streak of misery in our nation’s capital.

So when Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray on a breakaway that came via a lead pass from Ovechkin in overtime to put Washington over the top, it represented a lot of different things. Barriers broken, demons exorcised, critics silenced, and so much more.

Here’s just a few..

  • The Capitals getting past the Penguins at last. Finally is all you can really say. The Penguins had owned this matchup. Nine of the first 10 and last seven overall going back to 1994. Pittsburgh beat Washington each of the past two years en route to winning a pair of Stanley Cups. It had reached a point where the consensus was basically that it was a fait accompli that the Pens would take this matchup every time because that’s all that ever happened. It strikes similar to the Bruins winning the 1988 Adams Division Final over the Canadiens after losing 18 straight series to the Habs in a 45-year span.
  • Finally reaching that Conference Final. Obviously the next step here is for the Capitals to beat the Lightning, which is no small task. But getting over that Second Round hump is huge. They had been 0-for-6 in the Ovechkin era prior to this. There were all those losses to the Penguins. There was the blown 3-1 lead against the Rangers in 2015. “Let me know when they get out of the Second Round” was the line. Well, they just did.
  • And that’s for all four DC teams. I might be wrong but my feeling whenever something you see something like this streak that’s so well publicized, it has to get in a player’s head. There’s no way someone isn’t thinking about it. I’m not saying it’s a cure-all and you’re going to see the Nationals tear through the NLDS this fall but I feel like the Capitals did some favors for the other three DC teams.
  • Alex Ovechkin just shut up a lot people. Seriously. Any rumblings out there about Ovechkin and how he doesn’t show up in the playoffs (in which the numbers strongly suggest otherwise) were put to bed pretty quickly here. He was unbelievable in this series. OK, so he hasn’t won as much as Sid has. Guide me to the Washington roster in the Ovechkin era that also had a player as good as Evgeni Malkin.
  • Sometimes it helps to be under the radar. I’m not one of these ‘avoid winning the Presidents’ Trophy at all costs’ people. In fact, I hate the notion that winning the Presidents’ Trophy is some sort of roadblock to winning the Stanley Cup. The fact that just two of the last 12 teams that finished with the NHL’s best regular season record have won the Stanley Cup speaks more to the parity the Salary Cap era has created than anything else. But I think there is truth to the idea of the pressure being off helping things with this team, which is playing with house money to begin with after losing so much last offseason. Now they’ll go into the Eastern Conference Final against a Lightning team that will likely be heavily favored.
Advertisements

Sidney Crosby Is About to Rip Off Another Monster Postseason

We saw this coming, right?

Sidney Crosby had been cast behind teammates Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, both of whom had career years, or at the very least close to it. Momentum continues to build in the ‘Connor McDavid is the Best Player in the World’ camp. Factor in years by the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall, No. 87 falls even further back in the fold.

We’ve seen this play out before – it’s bad news for the rest of the NHL when it happens. For now, it appears to be bad news for the Philadelphia Flyers, who were waxed (to put it lightly), 7-0, by a Crosby-led Pittsburgh attack in the Wednesday’s playoff opener.

Good luck to anybody that comes within Pittsburgh’s path as the Penguins try to become the first team in 35 years to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions. Because if Wednesday’s shellacking was any indication, Crosby is about to rip off a monster postseason and will his team to another deep playoff run.

Crosby had about as quiet an 89-point season you can have. All the talk was Malkin, Kessel. The year MacKinnon, fellow Cole Harbour native, had. How McDavid was the best player in the league. It’s not rabbit ears, more a simple reminder of who the sheriff is.

Remember when his game had supposedly fallen off in 2015, how he wasn’t the best player in the world? He only went onto have a second-half tear, win a Stanley Cup, win the World Cup of Hockey, lead the league in goals, win another Stanley Cup in an 18-month period. That’s just the latest example. Like most athletes of his ilk, he can do pretty much what he damn well pleases virtually on demand.

Crosby’s final line in 16:13 of ice-time on Wednesday – three goals, a plus-five rating. Linemates Bryan Rust (goal, plus-5) and Jake Guentzel (goal, three assists, plus-4) combined for five points and a plus-nine rating to go along with Crosby’s third career playoff hat trick.

There was his patented bat-the-puck-out-of-the-air goal to start things out, then picked up a nice goal on a puck that pretty much deflected off a Philly stick and landed perfectly on his tape at the edge of the crease.

For good measure, Crosby completed the natural hat trick by redirecting a Brian Dumoulin shot out of the air.

You knew what was going to happen right from the opening faceoff, when Crosby bulldozed counterpart Claude Giroux like a bull in a china shop right off the draw, and got possession going in Pittsburgh’s favor right off the hop. Giroux and Selke Trophy candidate Sean Couturier were on the ice opposite Crosby for 5:01 and 5:07 of five-on-five play, respectively, per naturalstattrick.com, with the Penguins scoring three times within that matchup.

Again, good luck, rest of the NHL.

Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Eastern Conference

Devils vs Lightning

Why the Lightning win: To put it lightly, Tampa Bay has too much firepower for New Jersey to handle. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov put up points in bunches. Jon Cooper employs 200-foot savant Brayden Point to counter Taylor Hall. Victor Hedman logs his usual half-hour of work per night on the back end.

Why the Devils win: New Jersey knocks Tampa back on their heels with their speed and pace. Keith Kinkaid, who finished the season 7-0-1 with a .931 save percentage in his final eight games, continues to hold down the Devils crease and outplays Andrei Vasilevskiy, who of late has been a shell of his early-season self.

Player that proves to be the difference: Brayden Point.. Point has emerged as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. Point’s line, flanked by Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, will be the shutdown line for Tampa. And they can score goals too.

Something you might want to know: Andrei Vasilevskiy in his final nine games: 4-5-0, 3.74 GAA, .884 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid in his final eight games: 7-0-1, 2.25 GAA, .931 save percentage.

What happens: Lightning in 6. Tampa Bay’s best players prove to be too much of a handful for New Jersey.

Maple Leafs vs Bruins

Why the Bruins win: Two words and they both start with ‘D’. Depth, and defense. Bruins roll four lines as good as any team in the league and have one of the league’s top shutdown defensive pairings in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. The top forward line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak might be the best in the league.

Why the Maple Leafs win: Frederik Andersen carries what was one of the best seasons of his career into the postseason, steals a couple games, and outplays Tuukka Rask. Meanwhile, the injury bug that plagued the Bruins for the final month doesn’t just disappear when the playoffs begin.

Player that proves to be the difference: William Nylander.. Auston Matthews is one of the NHL’s best players and Nylander makes him even better. Nylander’s vision, skating, and puck-carrying ability opens up so much extra space for Matthews in the offensive zone, creating prime opportunities for the 20-year-old phenom, who has 78 goals and 137 points through his first 150 NHL games (regular season and playoffs).

Something you might want to know: Maple Leafs record in the 62 games Auston Matthews played this season: 38-19-5. Maple Leafs record in the 20 games Matthews missed: 11-7-2.

What happens: Bruins in 6. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the Maple Leafs will make this a series. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the opponent will prove to be too much for Toronto.

Flyers vs Penguins

Why the Penguins win: You see them up front? They’re loaded. You’ve got Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan (who has exceeded expectations since being acquired from Detroit early in the season). Phil Kessel had the best year of his career. The Penguins powerplay (tops in the league at 26.2 percent this season) is a threat to score in any man-advantage, especially against a Philadelphia unit that was third-worst in the league this season, better than only also-rans Canadiens and Islanders. The Pens, who are 30-9-2 in their own building this season, have home-ice advantage.

Meanwhile Malkin continues to be his usual, filthy self.

Why the Flyers win: You need defense and goaltending to win this time of year. The Philadelphia blue line is better than Pittsburgh’s. Ivan Provorov could be the best defenseman in this series. Matt Murray has had a rough season, both on and off the ice. If the forever-plagued-with-goalieitis Flyers get just enough stops in net, that could mean trouble for Pittsburgh. Up front, the Flyers are capable of matching what the Penguins bring.

Player that proves to be the difference: Matt Murray.. I really think it all comes down to which Matt Murray we see in net. This hasn’t been an easy season for the 23-year-old by any stretch. But he tends to raise his level when the games become bigger.

What happens: Penguins in 7. There’s going to be some ugly hockey played in this series. Probably quite a few high-scoring games, some bad defense, spotty goaltending, knowing the history of these teams I’m sure tempers will boil over at some point. But in the end, Pittsburgh finds a way to pull it out.

Blue Jackets vs Capitals

Why the Capitals win: This Caps team has two things going for them: 1) They enter the playoffs flying under the radar, 2) They enter the postseason playing their best hockey, winning 12 of their final 15 regular season games. All they need is the goaltending to hold up, which is a big if.

Why the Blue Jackets win: While the Blue Jackets didn’t create any real fireworks at the trade deadline, they did make some savvy, albeit unheralded moves that have paid off in the aftermath, particularly the acquisitions of Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole. Columbus made a strong finishing kick, which included a 10-game winning streak during March.

Player that proves to be the difference: Seth Jones.. One of the NHL’s best defensemen, Jones and D-partner Zach Werenski will be tasked with shutting down Alex Ovechkin. If they’re effective in doing so, it dramatically changes the outlook on this series.

Something you might want to know: The Blue Jackets finished the regular season with 97 points, second-most in franchise history behind last season, when they picked up 108.

What happens: Blue Jackets in 7. This has the potential to be a really good series. Both teams come in playing well. It all comes down to goaltending. I’ll take Sergei Bobrovsky (in spite of his suspect record in the playoffs) over whatever Washington sends out, whether that’s Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer.

Matt Niskanen sent apology text to Crosby following playoff cross-check

This was probably a top-five dumbest hockey story of all-time back in the spring.

In case you don’t remember, here’s a refresher for you. During the first period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round between the Penguins and Capitals last season, Sidney Crosby was going to the net, gets slashed/high-sticked/lacrosse-style stick-checked (whatever it was it was nothing major) by Alex Ovechkin then loses his feet, runs into Matt Niskanen whose stick meets his face. Niskanen goes to the box for cross-checking, Crosby leaves the game and goes into concussion protocol (then missed Game 4 of the series, which Pittsburgh won in seven games) and all hell breaks loose everywhere but inside the glass of this hockey game.

To sum it all up, it was essentially an Internet Outrage Industrial Complex special.

It also gave us this beauty.

So Wednesday afternoon in anticipation of the first Pens-Caps showdown of the season, Crosby told reporters he received an apology text from Niskanen in the aftermath, basically saying it was all water under the bridge and, well, a complete non-issue, upon which few would disagree.

Again, there was so little to this story yet it somehow managed to gain legs and spread like wildfire, something not uncommon to say the least.

Hopefully this closes the book on this story. Until the next “wow, why are we dedicating so much air time and column inches to this” saga…

Mid-season award predictions

So it’s the official midpoint of the season even though many teams are around the 50-game mark, well past the official midway point that is 41 games. But anyway, here’s a look at who might, will, and/or should win the respective NHL awards that are handed out following the season.

Hart Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- This award will probably go to Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby but Burns is why the Sharks lead the Pacific Division and are in the running to repeat as Western Conference champions. He’s been on the ice for 36 percent of San Jose’s goals, according to puckalytics, which compares to 28 percent for McDavid and 22 percent for Crosby. His 51 points in 50 games leads the team.

Vezina Trophy: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota- What a story this will be. The once forgotten about, cast away to the AHL only to get another chance and thrive goaltender in Dubnyk finally getting his due. He’s statistically been right up there with Carey Price among the game’s best netminder over the past few seasons and he’s been unconscious once again this season. He leads the league in save percentage (.936) and GAA (1.88), and is second in wins (27). The only thing that separates him from the goaltending Triple Crown at the moment in Sergei Bobrovsky, who has one more win than Dubnyk.

Norris Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- For all the reasons mentioned above, and then some. He’s having an historic season for a defenseman, and is making a serious push at the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point-getter. Should Burns win the scoring title – he’s eight points off the current perch held down by McDavid – he’d be just the second blueliner in NHL history to lead the league in scoring. The other is Bobby Orr.

Selke Trophy: Ryan Kesler, Anaheim- Kesler has been Anaheim’s best player this season. He has 39 points in 51 games while his 21:48 of ice time per game is a second behind Patrick Kane for the league-high among forwards. Kesler has taken a league-high 1,119 faceoffs, his 57.6 success rate on the draw third in the league behind Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly among players that have taken greater than 900 faceoffs. Watch out for a late surge from Bergeron, whose offensive numbers aren’t there but numbers on defense, faceoffs, and possession remain through the roof.

Calder Trophy: Auston Matthews, Toronto- In what has been the Year of the Rookie in 2016-17, Matthews stands alone in the race for the Calder. That’s how good he is, and that’s how much higher a level he’s on than everybody else. Forget rookies, Matthews has been one of the top five players in the league this season. He looks like he’s been in the NHL for 10 years. He’s tied with Alex Ovechkin for fourth in the NHL with 23 goals.

Jack Adams Award: John Tortorella, Columbus- The Blue Jackets have broken out this season, emerging as one of the league’s best teams, highlighted by a 16-game winning streak that stretched from November to January. It’s another feather in the cap for Tortorella, whose best known for going into young clubs and getting guys to realize their potential, as he did in Tampa Bay and New York.

General Manager of the Year: Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton- Chiarelli has done a fine job reconstructing the roster in Edmonton, and the Oilers are on track to erase an 11-year playoff drought as a result. Of course, it all starts with Connor McDavid, but a Chiarelli bringing in a number of players over the past two years, such as Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Andrej Sekera, Mark Letestu, and Kris Russell has changed the identity of the team. While he traded an elite talent in Taylor Hall, it’s looked like the shake up the Oilers needed.

Lady Byng Trophy: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis- He’s having his best season yet, with 47 points in 49 games while carrying a Blues team that isn’t as good as years past. He’s done so by staying out of the box, with just eight penalty minutes.

Masterton Trophy: Craig Anderson, Ottawa- Anderson hasn’t played since December 5th, away from the Senators to be by his wife’s side as she undergoes treatment for cancer. However, he’s nearing a return as his wife has completed treatment.

Art Ross Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- He’s a long shot but what the heck, let’s have some fun here. I’ll be rooting for the story.

Richard Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh- Crosby has slowed off the pace when it comes to putting the puck in the net after a torrid start to the year, but nobody has really caught up.

Stat of the Day: Sidney Crosby with no goals in last five games

Sidney Crosby, never known for his goal scoring, was out to a blazing start in the 2016-17 season.

The all-world, all-time great Pittsburgh Penguin pivot had 26 goals through 31 games to begin his season, which was delayed by a concussion suffered days before the season opener.

While Crosby was playing the best hockey of his Hall of Fame career, there was plenty of reason to believe a drop-off – even of the slightest nature – would occur. After scoring his 31st goal in a December 28th Pittsburgh win over Carolina, Crosby had connected on nearly one-quarter of his shots (24.3 percent shooting percentage), an uptick from the 14.3 percent clip he’d connected at over the first 11 seasons of his career. His 82-game pace of 69 goals was well above his career-high of 51.

So it comes as no surprise that Crosby has been held scoreless over his last five games, falling a tad bit off the thunderous pace he’d been on for the past calendar year. Of course, it hasn’t been all bad, either, over those five games, as Crosby has picked up four assists to go along with an even rating. He’s averaged 20:10 of ice-time per game while putting 15 shots on net, recording a shot in every game but Wednesday’s loss to Washington, where the 29-year-old was summoned to take on heavier defensive assignments against a high-octane, explosive Capitals team.

Crosby maintains the NHL goal scoring lead, but has Jeff Carter quickly gaining, as the Kings center scored his 23rd goal of the season on Saturday. Behind Carter is Cam Atkinson, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Alex Ovechkin at 21 while Vladimir Tarasenko and Max Pacioretty have 20.

The Push(es) for 1,000: The Sedins get one step closer

Alex Ovechkin became the 84th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points on Wednesday night. Four other players are looking to follow him, with Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Sidney Crosby, and Shane Doan all within 44 points of four figures.

Here’s an update of how three of the four that played last night fared.

*Both Henrik and Daniel Sedin inched closer in the Canucks 5-4 shootout loss to Philadelphia. The two connected on the first goal in the way they’ve become best known – Henrik the facilitator, Daniel the finisher – when Daniel scored on a feed from Troy Stetcher at 9:21 of the first period to open the scoring. Henrik got the secondary assist on the powerplay goal, Daniel’s 366th career goal and 966th point.

Henrik picked up his 766th career as he moved within three points of 1,000.

*Sidney Crosby, sitting a 982, was held off the scoresheet in the Penguins 4-1 loss to Ottawa. It’s just the seventh time in 35 games this season he’s failed to record a point.

*Doan was idle as the Coyotes were off on Thursday. Arizona gets back in action on Friday when it hosts Winnipeg.