Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Capital punishment: How Washington's physical play finally wore down the Penguins

Craig Custance
ESPN Senior Writer
May 9, 2017

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against Matt Niskanen #2 of the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- For the second time during the Washington Capitals' Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals didn't immediately open their dressing room after a game. The first delay came after Game 2, which Washington lost 6-2 at home -- when a tense, players-only meeting that lasted a good 10 minutes kept the doors closed. The Capitals weren't too eager to open up about what happened during that meeting, only to say that center Nicklas Backstrom led the discussion and said what needed to be said.
After Washington's 5-2 victory in a must-win Game 6, there was another short delay. Except this time the media assembled outside the dressing room could hear hollering and good-natured yelling through the walls. The Capitals were having a good time.
What exactly was going on in there?
"[There] was no music," Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. "Something [was wrong with] with the speaker."
He immediately sensed the skepticism.
"I swear," he said.
The postgame sound system might have been out of sync, but the Capitals themselves didn't skip a beat. And who could blame them for celebrating? After falling into a 3-1 series hole, they had finally evened the series at 3-3 and forced a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
The sense of doom that had hovered over the team earlier in the series was replaced with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence.
It was a dramatic change. It was also the payoff for the Capitals' doubling down on physical play, tightening up defensively and imposing their brand of tough hockey on a Penguins team that still hasn't been able to control play for an entire game in this series.
"[The Capitals are] not a fast team, but they're a possession team, a physical team -- the weight is starting to get a little heavy for Pittsburgh," said a coach of another NHL team during a phone conversation after Game 6. "The one thing Washington did better [in Game 6] than any other game they played is that they played on the right side of it. They played on the right side of Pittsburgh all night long. [The Penguins] never had a chance to get it going with any speed."
Starting with its first-round matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh has played back-to-back series against teams that use physicality as a weapon to wear down opponents over the course of several games. Columbus couldn't keep its series against the Penguins going long enough to cash in on any payoff for that physicality. But, with the third-period turnaround in Game 5, the Capitals suddenly reaped the rewards.
All that tough defense earlier in the series, all those hits, all those blocked shots -- they're starting to add up for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh is already without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang, who underwent surgery for a herniated disk in his neck last month, and the Penguins also desperately missed veteran Trevor Daley (out with a lower-body injury) in Game 6. It's likely we'll learn that the Penguins forwards also are playing through a litany of injuries once their season eventually ends. Winger Bryan Rust was the latest Pittsburgh player to get up slowly after blocking a shot in Game 6 -- and was clearly in pain on the bench afterward. Right wing Patric Hornqvist is a medical marvel, given the number of times it looked like he would have to leave the game after taking a puck or a hit -- but instead kept on trucking and did so with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
"He's a warrior," Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl said of Hornqvist. "He's very physical; he's very intense. He's a guy who never backs down; he always gets up. He always has juice in his tank."
We'll find out in Game 7 whether the Penguins still have the same reserve of energy in their tank. The Capitals' plan all along was to stick to their heavy game and hope it came with a payoff as the series crawled to its end. They've done an admirable job of sticking to it, even when it looked at times like the series was getting away from them.
Now Washington is optimistic that its biggest payoff is imminent.
"We hope so," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We don't know. It feels like our overall game has been pretty good for a majority of a lot of the games. Early on in the series, a few breakdowns hurt us, and they capitalized on them. I think we're finishing a little better."
The Capitals have been finishing so well, that part needed a clarification -- finishing scoring chances or finishing checks?
"I meant finishing scoring chances," Niskanen said. "But finishing checks is part of who we are."
A big part of the Penguins' success last spring was their ability to consistently use their speed to keep opposing teams on their heels. Whether it's because of injuries or fatigue -- or both -- that hasn't happened consistently this postseason for Pittsburgh. The Penguins have also typically been businesslike throughout games, never allowing the opposing teams to provoke any sign of frustration.
That didn't appear to be the case in Game 6. The Capitals continued their physical play on Crosby, and there were lots of battles back and forth. Kuznetsov appeared to get under Penguins center Evgeni Malkin's skin after a slash that brought out a retaliation.
Pittsburgh's collective frustration was evident.
"It's our goal to frustrate them," Backstrom said.
When asked whether Crosby was the Capitals' main target, Washington defenseman John Carlson said that every Penguin was.
"We try to make it hard on everybody," Carlson said. "No one is going to shy away. The more and more you can impose on people, make it hard, that's the goal."
The Capitals have the Penguins on the ropes, but the fourth win is always the toughest. It's even harder when the fourth win has to come against the defending Stanley Cup champs. The tide has turned in this series, but those who know the Penguins stars well expect them to find another gear for Game 7.
"It's your game against their game. Right now, Washington has played [its] game better than Pittsburgh has played [its]," the NHL coach said. "But you're going to get a good performance [in Game 7] out of Malkin and Crosby. You've got some guys who understand what digging deep is all about."

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