During a stoppage in Game 1 against the Capitals, after taking a hit along the boards, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang turned to the Capitals’ bench and pointed to his bicep as if to say, ‘I’m stronger than you think.”
The Capitals would like to spend the next 10 days testing that strength.
“Any time you can impose your will on defensemen … we’ve got guys like Ovi and myself and Willy and Beags and Winnie, some big guys going at you,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said, referring to Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik. “You ask our D-men, they don’t like getting hit going back for pucks. It’s harder to break out, for sure.
“As I’ve learned in the playoffs it may not pay dividends in Games 1 or 2, but you go 3 and 4 it starts creeping in their minds and in Games 5 and 6, if it goes that long, you just keep wearing guys out. It’s no secret you’ve got to hit guys like Letang and (Trevor) Daley and make them play hard minutes.”
In the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime victory Thursday night, the Capitals outhit the Penguins 43-29. Alex Ovechkin led the assault with seven hits, followed by Wilson (6), Beagle (6) and Matt Niskanen (5). It’s difficult to say how many of those hits were absorbed by Letang during his game-high 34:02 of ice time, but 10 might be a good round number.
``The best thing is to break out clean,” Letang said. “If you have to take the hit, you take the hit.
``Going back for the puck in our zone, you want to go as fast as you can. It’s going to allow you a little more time. You’re going to have time to shoulder check and see what’s coming at you. I think that’s the best advice I can give. As far as making a play and taking a hit, that’s playoff hockey. You’re going to take some hits and give some.’’
Letang, who stands 6-foot, 201 pounds, said he had trouble sleeping after Game 1, so he pulled out his iPad and watched video of the Caps’ different forecheck schemes.
``I couldn’t sleep. They have different line combinations that forecheck differently,” he said. “So you have to be aware of who’s on the ice against who. They have two lines that have a heavy forecheck and have two lines that rely on their skill and speed.’’
In Round 1, the Penguins used the Rangers’ aggressive forecheck to their own benefit by moving the puck quickly out of their zone to create odd-man rushes the other way. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the key is to know when to make a safe play and when to take a hit to protect the puck.
“We use the phrase, ‘Sometimes you've gotta live to fight another day,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes the simple play is the right play, just moving the puck to an area and playing an efficient game that way. I thought in Game 1 our defensemen did a real nice job as far as making the decisions coming out of our end zone.
“We had some times when we came out clean and we had some chances off the rush, and other times we put pucks to areas and we got into foot races. That's kind of been the mantra of our game here the last couple of months and obviously we rely on our defensemen, they're a key part of that as far as helping us transition out of our own end zone.
“I think that's always a point of emphasis with our team as far as making your next play easier. The quicker you get back, the more opportunity you have for a next play. That's something that we've tried to prioritize with our guys almost to try to create the habit of getting back as quickly as possible. I just think it makes that next play a little bit easier if you have that extra fraction of a second because you can create that separation.”
Chimera said the Caps have to walk that fine line between being physical and “running around like a crazy maniac,” but it’s clear the Capitals want to keep the heat on the Penguins’ blue liners.
“We’ve got big forwards and we can play numerous ways,” Wilson said. “They’re a fast, powerful team and maybe not as gritty and as emotionally involved as Philly was, but they’re a way better team. They’ve got more speed, they’ve got more weapons. They’ve got (Evgeni) Malkin, they’ve got (Sidney) Crosby. I’m gonna be worried more about checking those guys than getting emotional and getting physical after the whistle.”
Asked specifically about Letang and his muscle flex, Wilson smiled.
“I don’t want to sell the rivalry short with the Penguins,” he said. “There’s definitely no love lost. Philly was a different series. You saw a lot more stick work, a lot more cheap kind of work. Pittsburgh, you’ve gotta respect their talent. There’s going to be some extra antics after the whistle, it’s an emotional game.
I’m chirping Fehrsie (Eric Fehr), Fehrsie’s chirping me. That’s the fun part of the game. You have a friendship off the ice but once the puck drops we’re at each other’s throats. Letang’s an emotional guy and we’re going to stay on him and make sure he doesn’t have an easy series.”