Sunday, May 07, 2017

Penguins' series with Capitals turning into matchup fans had hoped for

By Mark Madden
May 7, 2017

Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes the save as Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks for the rebound during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on May 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Now the pucker is on the other, uh, foot.
The Penguins still control their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with Washington. But Monday's Game 6 at PPG Paints Arena seems a de facto Game 7 for the hosts, who responded well to an identical situation last year. The Penguins don't want to go back to Washington for a rubber match, and need to play their best game of the series.
It's fair to say that the Penguins have been largely outplayed for the balance of this matchup, but lead thanks to savage opportunism, superior intelligence honed by more positive playoff experience, and the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins have been outshot in every game, and by a total margin of 174-115 over the five games.
When you get more shots and enjoy more zone time, luck eventually smiles. That's what happened in Game 5 when two shots blocked by the Penguins rebounded right to Capitals' sticks for quick put-backs behind Fleury.
It's been an odd series from many perspectives.
Game 3 went to overtime. The Capitals won, but the Penguins easily could have. The Penguins took a 2-1 lead into the third period of Game 5.
Yet, if not for Fleury, the Capitals could have long since deleted the Penguins.
The Capitals and Penguins had the NHL's best regular-season records, and some bemoan a flawed playoff format that forced them to meet "too early."
But the latest they could have met is one round further. It would have been absolutely inevitable. The Penguins and Capitals are in a class by themselves. So, what's the difference?
Regardless of when, this series has been chock-full of storylines and incredibly compelling.
Now it's just down to who wins.
The most promising thing for the Capitals is goaltender Braden Holtby rallying to post his best effort of the series in Game 5. Holtby, who too often makes every save but the one he has to, started Game 5 inauspiciously when Carl Hagelin put a shot through him to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in the first period.
But Holtby buckled down after that. Although the Penguins had just 22 shots, Holtby had to make a number of challenging stops, including a few that would have allowed the Penguins to extend their lead beyond one goal.
Washington's physicality is wearing down the Penguins.
In Game 5, the Capitals out-hit the Penguins 38-15. The Penguins can't close that gap appreciably, and shouldn't try. Not their style. But the Capitals are dominating traffic and, unlike Columbus, don't appear to be tiring themselves out via playing the body. They had far more energy than the Penguins in Saturday's third period.
The Penguins shouldn't panic, and undoubtedly won't.
If one problem looms for Monday, the clock has struck midnight on a defensive corps that is finally playing at an ordinary level in the absence of injured Kris Letang. Lack of Letang's one-man breakout skills applied over his usual 30 minutes of ice time is the primary reason the Capitals are penning in the Penguins. Blocking shots is fine, but helps transition not one iota.
That headache can't be cured. But the Penguins need to stop making mistakes at their own blue line. Bad clears have plagued the Penguins all series, and a whiff by Hagelin wound up in Fleury's net for Saturday's game-losing goal.
On the positive side, returns from injury have returned the Penguins to their full complement of depth and speed up front.
The superstars are producing at their pay grade: Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin have combined for seven goals and nine assists on the series. Crosby had just one assist in Game 5, but appeared to be suffering no ill effects from the concussion he sustained in Game 3.
This is, approximately, how the series was supposed to go. A sweep or five-game win was never in the cards for either team. This series is, in effect, the Stanley Cup Finals.
Can Fleury and his .929 save percentage in these playoffs keep working miracles? Can Holtby keep up? Will it ever boil down to a duel between Crosby and Alex Ovechkin? (Each notched hat tricks in Game 2 of the 2009 playoff matchup between the teams.) What will prevail, the Capitals' brawn or the Penguins' speed?
Three things are certain:
*Monday is the Penguins' best chance to win the series.
*Until the Capitals advance past the second round in the Ovechkin era, they haven't.
*This matchup is everything it was cracked up to be.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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