Flyers

NHL Playoffs: Capitals overwhelm Penguins to force decisive Game 7

NHL Playoffs: Capitals overwhelm Penguins to force decisive Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- The Washington Capitals are well aware of their franchise's inglorious past, one filled with unmet expectations and gut-wrenching collapses.

And they don't care. It's not 1992. It's not 1996, 2009 or 2016 for that matter.

The Capitals have spent the better part of the season insisting this time, things will be different. That they're not burdened by the weight of the team's history of playoff flameouts, one most of the guys in red, white and blue had nothing to do with.

Backed up to the precipice against a rival that's tormented them for decades, the Capitals finally punched back. Hard.

Andre Burakovsky scored twice, Nicklas Backstrom got his sixth of the playoffs and Washington beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on Monday night to force a Game 7 in their seesaw Eastern Conference semifinal.

This is the fourth time the two teams will meet in a winner-take-all. The Penguins have won each of the previous three. Not that it bothers the Capitals.

"I haven't been here forever but, one, I've never been in a Game 7," said Washington forward T.J. Oshie, who opened the scoring with a first-period power-play goal . "Two, I've never been past the second round. I know how much it would mean to me and I imagine it would be the same to every guy in this locker room."

The Capitals are as close as they've been to their first appearance in the conference finals in 19 years after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit by sprinting by Pittsburgh in the third period at home in Game 5 and then delivering a masterful performance 48 hours later in a city that's often been a burial ground for once-promising seasons.

A year ago, Washington trailed Pittsburgh 3-1 in the second round, won Game 5 at home only to fall in overtime of Game 6. Intent on not repeating history yet again, the Capitals jumped on the defending Stanley Cup champions early and didn't relent until the things were well in hand and a once raucous arena was largely empty.

"Since Game 3 we've had a sense of calmness about what we're doing," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "We're having fun now. The fun part has been the obstacle."

Jake Guentzel picked up his playoff-leading ninth goal and Evgeni Malkin added another 52 seconds later late in the third period to make the score look cosmetically better, but the Penguins were never in it. The Capitals controlled play throughout. Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 21 saves and received little help in front him.

"I think we were probably guilty of making a few mistakes early on and then probably chasing our mistakes after that," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who had an assist in 20 minutes but was largely a nonfactor in his second game back after missing Game 4 with a concussion.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan tinkered with his line combinations reuniting the "HBK" line (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel) that played an instrumental part in the team's Cup run last spring. Sullivan also moved rookie Guentzel alongside Malkin and put Conor Sheary with Crosby.

None of it worked as Washington pushed the Penguins around. Crosby took a nasty spill in the first period when he was slammed into the end boards head-first while he tangled with Carlson. He remained in the game but found little room to work.

Then again, neither did any of his teammates as Washington dominated.

Pittsburgh's first shot in the opening 17 minutes was a 136-foot flip by Brian Dumoulin that made its way to Braden Holtby, who easily stopped it for the first of his 16 saves. By then the Capitals already had a 1-0 lead on Oshie's fourth of the playoffs.

It wasn't unlike most of the first four games of the series, when Washington would control play for long stretches only to have Pittsburgh expertly counter on its way to a 3-1 advantage.

This time, there would be no response by the Penguins.

Pittsburgh had trouble executing even the simplest of plays. Defenseman Ron Hainsey went to boards to retrieve a loose puck in the Penguins end only to get checked by Burakovsky, who skated away with the puck and stuffed a shot past Fleury 6:36 into the second .

Holding two-goal leads in the postseason has been a tenuous proposition at best, with 13 times teams letting them away so far in the postseason.

Yet instead of simply trying to protect its advantage, Washington kept pressing. Backstrom flipped a wrist shot by Fleury 16 seconds into the third to make it 3-0 and when John Carlson fired one past Fleury 11:17 into the third, the arena began emptying out.

It was a sweet moment for the Capitals, but they're aware an even more blissful one awaits if they can duplicate their performance on Wednesday.

"We're going to have to be better," Oshie said. "We're going to have to push them out. That's going to be a tough task but I think it's something we have the right guys and the right mentality right now to do that."

Notes 
Penguins D Trevor Daley did not play after getting hit by Washington's Tom Wilson in Game 5. Chad Ruhwedel filled in. ... Washington went 2 for 4 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 3.

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

It looks as though Travis Sanheim will sit for the second straight game vs. the Panthers tonight (see Flyers-Panthers thoughts)

Now, before you get angry — and fire off a hot take about Andrew MacDonald or Brandon Manning — understand this isn’t a death sentence for Sanheim.

The Flyers have played all of five games this season. Sanheim has played in three, and after a bumpy NHL debut vs. the Kings, the talented rookie showed growth to round out the Flyers’ season-opening road trip (see Flyers Rookie Report)

“I think that the L.A. game was a bit of a wash, with it being my first game and it not going the way I wanted it to,” Sanheim said. “But I thought the other two games, you started to see some more of the way I want to play. I thought even into the Nashville game, I got better that night, as well. I think that’s what you want to see with a young guy, is getting better every night and I’ll continue to do that.”

And after watching from the press box during Saturday’s blowout win vs. the Capitals, the Flyers’ top defensive prospect will get his chances ... at some point. 

“I don’t have a number for you, there,” Hakstol said of when we could see Sanheim crack the lineup. “But your players have to play. That doesn’t mean they have to play every game, but certainly they have to learn, both off the ice, on the ice, practice, game-wise and continue to grow.”

So Sanheim — who is a minus-two with zero points — has to learn the NHL game. It’s not uncommon for rookie defensemen to struggle with the speed and skill of the NHL in the early parts of their careers.

“The position is a hard position to make the adjustment to and to learn,” Hakstol said. “That being said, I think your players can be successful in making the jump and making the transition.”

If Sanheim needs any inspiration, he simply needs to look a few lockers down at Ivan Provorov. 

Provorov made the jump straight from the WHL (junior hockey) to the NHL last season, and early on, it wasn’t a particularly smooth transition. The then 19-year-old bottomed out at a minus-five in an October loss to Chicago but blossomed into the team’s No. 1 defenseman in the second half of the season.

Sure, Sanheim has taken his lumps this season, but he hasn’t necessarily been bad. Hakstol even went as far as to say that he’s been happy with the 21-year-old’s play.

“I’ve been very happy with him, Hakstol said. “I’ve been happy with Travis’ play. We want him to keep growing. He’s going to continue to be a big part of our group. He’s got a great attitude and a great perspective in terms of being able to handle all the different situations that come his way.”

Sanheim says the coaching staff hasn’t ordered him to focus on any one aspect of his game, but after Tuesday’s optional morning skate, the rookie stayed on the ice for an extra 30 minutes with the staff and Jori Lehtera — who has been a healthy scratch for all five games this season — working on clearing the crease. 

It all comes down to the numbers. And right now, the Flyers have seven solid defensemen. 

“The other night (Saturday vs. Capitals), obviously I wanted to be in the lineup, but we've got seven good D right now and obviously there’s going to be a guy sitting, and it just happened to be me the other night,” Sanheim said. “It was a learning experience. I think I can gain a lot from watching and seeing some of those guys, how they handle themselves in certain situations and I thought I gained a lot from it the other night.

Not convinced? Last season, rookie winger Travis Konecny and second-year D-man Shayne Gostisbehere both served multiple stints in Hakstol’s doghouse — the press box — and have seemingly turned things around to begin this season. This year, Gostisbehere is second on the team in points with eight, while, more importantly, he and Konecny are both a plus-two on the year — good enough for a tie for third on the team. So, like it or not, maybe there is some good to sitting a young player for a few games. 

“Ultimately, as a young guy, I think there’s a lot of things you need to work on and for me, its just working hard in practice and getting better every day,” Sanheim said. “I just want to try and establish myself as an everyday player. 

“I’ve been through this before. My first year of junior, I didn’t play right away and I was a healthy scratch for five games there, so I’ve been through the process before and I understand the situation that I’m in and ultimately, it’s up to me whether I want to play every night and I gotta show them that I’m deserving of that and obviously, its going to maybe take some time but I’m willing to pout in the work.”

Projected lines
With only 11 players skating, there was no line rushes or defensive pairings, but coming off an 8-2 win, it’s hard to imagine Hakstol making any changes to the lineup. However, it looks as though Michal Nuevirth will get the start in net. 

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches
Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

usa-ap-flyers-panthers-game-notes-slide.jpg
USA Today Images/AP Images/CSN

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

Flyers (3-2-0) vs. Panthers (2-2-0)
7 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30
 
Did the Flyers save any goals for the rest of the five-game homestand?
 
That's probably what many are asking after watching the 8-2 demolition they put on the Washington Capitals in Saturday night's home opener.
 
The Flyers will try to keep things rolling Tuesday night when they welcome the Florida Panthers to the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Here are some thoughts before Game 6 of the season:
 
• You couldn't ask for much more from the Flyers' top line against the Capitals. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek downright manhandled Washington. When Giroux moved to the left wing and Sean Couturier bumped up to first-line center, Saturday's performance was likely the dream scenario in the minds of the Flyers' coaching staff and front office.
 
It seemed like Voracek was making a play every time he touched the puck, Couturier did yeoman's work in all phases, and Giroux looked like his old self, showing a little bit of everything in his arsenal. The trio combined for 10 points on four goals and six assists. No one is expecting such production on a game-by-game basis, but let's see if this group can sustain these positive vibes and turn itself into a staple up top. As evidenced by Saturday, the Flyers go to a different level when those three are on.
 
• No one wants to see Travis Sanheim sitting. He's a first-round pick the fan base has been eager to see. He has great size and offensive upside for a defenseman. It will be exciting to watch him become a pillar of the Flyers' blue line.
 
But is it really the end of the world if Brandon Manning plays a couple games here in the early going? Manning will suit up Tuesday for his second straight game in place of Sanheim. The 21-year-old rookie won't be in the press box for long, though, because that doesn't jive with general manager Ron Hextall's development plan. So Sanheim will sit for a few, watch and learn. That's not too terrible.
 
And, the two games Manning has played so far (season opener and home opener), the Flyers won both by a combined score of 13-5. Was he the most critical reason why? No, but he didn't hurt the Flyers, either. Keeping your projected seventh defenseman somewhat active is a good idea for when/if he is needed.
 
Sanheim will be fine and he will play.
 
We're about to be only six games in here … let's just give this some time.
 
• Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said he planned on using both of his goalies over this homestand. Michal Neuvirth will get the call against the Panthers after Brian Elliott started four of the first five games. Neuvirth looks like the clear backup, but it's important to get him starts, and that's what Hakstol plans on doing.
 
Neuvirth didn't see Florida last season. However, he did see the Panthers in 2015-16 and was terrific, delivering a shutout, 1.59 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in two games. He hasn't seen game action since Oct. 5.
 
• Wayne Simmonds, who has been a stud so far with five goals in five games, did work against Florida last season, posting three goals and an assist in three games.
 
• The Panthers are good. They've scored 16 goals through their first four games, all tough tests against the Lightning twice, the Blues and the Penguins. Florida boasts some nice, young talent in center Jonathan Huberdeau (three goals, two assists), center Aleksander Barkov (three assists) and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (two goals, two assists), just to name some.
 
To add to it, Florida's first-round pick at 10th overall this past summer, Owen Tippett, will make his NHL debut tonight. The 18-year-old scored 44 goals in 60 junior games last season for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
 
• Here is the Flyers' projected lineup:
 
Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl
 
Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas
 
Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim.