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Can Capitals exploit Penguins rookie goalie Matt Murray?

Can Capitals exploit Penguins rookie goalie Matt Murray?

Last week, Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy brought a little perspective about what it might be like to be 21-year-old rookie goaltender Matt Murray, who will face the Capitals tonight in Game 1 of the second-round series between two of the NHL’s greatest rivals.

“When I was 21 years old, I was drinking beers in my frat basement at (that) point in my life,” Lovejoy said.

Tonight at Verizon Center Murray will look to continue what has been a joyride through his first full professional hockey season. Called up by the Penguins as an injury replacement for starter Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) Murray went 9-2-1 down the stretch for the Pens and replaced backup Jeff Zatkoff in Game 3 of the first-round series against the New York Rangers, going a perfect 3-0 while allowing just four goals.

Murray outdueled Henrik Lundqvist in Round 1 and he’ll face Vezina Trophy finalist Braden Holtby in Round 2. Pretty stiff competition. As you might expect, the Caps say the key to getting under the mask of any goalie is to get into his crease. Maybe even more so against a rookie.

“You can make goalies look good and you can make goalies look bad,” Caps left wing Jason Chimera said. “He’s been playing really good. He’s a pretty young talent and from what I’ve seen he’s played really well. 

“You’ve got to force things on him early. Neuvy (Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth) had a lot less to lose going in down 3-0. Murray didn’t start the last series and it’s a different ballgame when you start a series as a young kid. Hopefully, we can get on him early.”

Murray, a lanky 6-foot-4 native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, faced the Capitals twice during the regular season, allowing three goals on 37 shots in a 3-2 loss March 1, and beating the Caps 4-3 in overtime on April 7 after allowing three goals on 30 shots.

“Of course we want to put pressure on their D and their goalie, obviously,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who did not score on Murray in the two games and went the entire season series without a point against Pittsburgh. “They don’t play physical much. We have to use it.”                      

Ovechkin said he believes the Caps have the edge in goal.

“(Holtby) is the best goalie in the league,” he said. “When you have that kind of weapon on your team, it’s huge.”

In many ways Murray finds himself in a similar situation that Holtby found himself in four years ago when he was thrust into the playoff spotlight as a 22-year-old following late-season injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth. That spring, Holtby defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Round 1 and established himself as the Caps’ No. 1 netminder.

“Obviously, you’re just excited to get the chance,” Holtby said of his 2012 playoff experience. “We’re expecting him to play well. He’s an extremely talented goalie and just like anything, the gap between one and 16 in this league isn’t very big, so you have to create goals that are going to go in.”

Before this season, Holtby’s playoff experience consisted of five straight playoff series that lasted seven games. He said getting three days off between Sunday’s Game 6 against the Flyers and tonight’s Game 1 against the Penguins was ideal. 

Holtby believes he’s a better goalie because of his playoff experience but is not discounting Murray’s ability to stay hot.

“Every bit of experience helps in any way, shape or form and hopefully you can feel a little more comfortable in those strenuous situations, but everyone’s different,” Holtby said. “It just matters the moment you’re in if you can execute. That’s the focus. You can’t reflect on the past or the future, stay in the moment.”​

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

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USA TODAY Sports

Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

The mood in the Capitals locker room following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday was one of frustration. Forty minutes of strong play from Washington amounted to nothing because of a disastrous opening first period in which the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

No one in the locker room was more frustrated than Braden Holtby.

"Obviously you don't want to go down three," he told reporters after the game. "That's on no one else but me. The third goal, especially the third, fourth goal, that's the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team. We should have got a better result and that's on me why we didn't."

Tampa scored three goals in the first off of only eight shots. For the game, the Lightning managed to pierce Holtby four times off of only 19 shots.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS LOST TO THE LIGHTNING

Frustration seemed to boil over on the fourth goal when a normally stoic Holtby was visibly upset after allowing Nikita Kucherov to beat him on a breakaway in a play similar to what we saw in the All-Star Game.

See for yourself:

"The key to getting better is learning from your mistakes and obviously I didn't do that," Holtby said. "I was just trying to play it patient. I wasn't trying to cheat towards that move and he came at it a different way. That's on me for not recognizing it. That's not a goal I can give up in that situation after our team battled the way they did, especially in the third."

The frustration Holtby feels likely is not the result of one goal, but the culmination of a recent slump that continues to plague the Vezina winner.

Holtby has lost four straight starts and has given up at least four goals in each of those games.

While Holtby was quick to take the blame for Tuesday's loss, head coach Barry Trotz was quick to defend his netminder.

"No one takes the loss," he said. "We all take a loss. I take a loss, the group takes a loss and Braden's part of the group. ... He's had a little tough stretch. It's no different than, we've got guys that haven't scored in 15, 20 games. It's no different than a player."

The challenge now is overcoming that slump.

For a slumping skater, Trotz could try different line combinations or play someone in different situations over the course of the game. Getting a starting goalie out of a slump, however, is more difficult. Most of the work has to be done in practice with the hope that it will carry over into the next game.

"You analyze how the goals are going in, what you're doing differently," Holtby said. "There's always some stuff that you can't control and stuff that you can and it's focusing on those contrallables that you can make a difference at. Like the first goal in Chicago, the last two goals here, those are goals that I could and should stop. You get to practice the next day and you focus on that and work hard until you figure it out so you don't do it again."

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Part of the problem in Washington is that team defense is the Caps' biggest weakness. For most of the season, and even in years past, Holtby has made up for much of the team's mistakes on the backend. Now that he is slumping those mistakes become much more glaring and costly.

"The goaltenders in this league are erasers," Trotz said.

Lately, Holtby has not been able to erase those mistakes.

But the team has already moved to address the defense. Brian MacLellan added a puck-moving defenseman in Michal Kempny to help the team get the puck out of the defensive zone more quickly. Waiving Taylor Chorney could also signify another move may be coming before Monday's trade deadline.

As for Trotz, even during the slump, he made clear his confidence in Holtby has not wavered.

"He has been a rock since the day I've been here the last four years and he's been an elite goaltender and I look at him that way."

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2018 Olympic Hockey Results: Czech Republic eliminate U.S. men in shootout winner

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2018 Olympic Hockey Results: Czech Republic eliminate U.S. men in shootout winner

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Pavel Francouz stopped all five shooters and Petr Kouka scored the shootout winner as the Czech Republic eliminated the United States with a 3-2 victory in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

Jan Kovar and Tomas Kundratek scored in regulation for the Czech Republic, which was fresher after winning its group and getting a bye into the quarterfinals. The U.S. looked fatigued after facing Slovakia in the qualification round and was outshot 29-20.

Ryan Donato and Jim Slater scored for the U.S, which again was led by its youngest players, including speedster Troy Terry. U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski allowed three goals on 29 shots and one in the shotoout, while Francouz stopped 18 in regulation and overtime.

Koukal was the only player to score in overtime. Chris Bourque, Ryan Donato, Marc Arcobello, Terry and Bobby Butler couldn't beat Francouz.

RELATED: OVECHKIN HAS LITTLE DESIRE TO WATCH 2018 WINTER OLYMPICS