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Do Capitals need to win Penguins series to silence playoff criticism?

Do Capitals need to win Penguins series to silence playoff criticism?

PITTSBURGH – It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer: After winning the Presidents’ Trophy, do the Capitals need to win their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins to change the opinions of critics who believe anything short of an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals is considered a failure?

 “I don’t know how to answer that,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday as his team again sat on the brink of elimination, trailing the Penguins three games to two entering tonight’s crucial Game 6 at Consol Energy Center. “I think (defenseman) Karl Alzner said it best. Every group is a different group.

“Organizationally, we would want to so you wouldn’t ask me that question every time I come up here. Realistically, we just gotta win this game and worry about that.”

The Capitals believe they answered their critics with Saturday night’s 3-1 win over the Penguins at Verizon Center. But they also believe that was just another brick in a foundation that Trotz began laying at the start of last season.

“Our team played well when we had some pressure,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Last game we showed it. We showed we have some trust in each other. The last game is over and tonight is going to be the biggest game of the year. We’re ready. We have (Brooks) Orpik back and it’s a good opportunity for us.”

Other than a potential Game 7 Thursday night at Verizon Center, there is nothing that can define the growth of the Capitals in the past two seasons under Trotz more than tonight’s game.

“We don’t know how the series is going to end, but we want to leave our best game out there,” Trotz said. “When our backs are against the wall a little bit we’ve been able to do that.

We don’t feel sorry for the position we’re in. We gotta get determined, come in here tonight and win a hockey game and see where that takes us.”

Tonight’s game is particularly important for Ovechkin, who desperately wants to shake the label  of never having played in a conference final.

“Right now I don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Ovechkin said.

To be fair, Ovechkin has left his mark on these playoffs, not to mention a few Flyers and Penguins along the way. Through 11 games he has five goals and five assists and ranks first among NHL players in shots (56) and third in hits (55). 

Evgeny Kuznetsov is still waiting to make his mark. After leading the Capitals and finishing seventh in the NHL with 77 points, the 23-year-old Russian has just one goal and one assist, along with a minus-4 rating in 11 playoff games.
“It’s not easy,” Kuznetsov said. “All I want is to win the game today. It doesn’t matter who scores. Maybe I score five goals. Maybe somebody else scores five. It doesn’t matter. We just need to win the game. Of course you want to score goals and make assists, but when you get older you understand if you do something good for the team goals and assists come.”

That has been the message Trotz has been trying to drive home for Kuznetsov since he took over as coach last season, their first full season in Washington. 

“I’ve talked to Kuzy all series and all year,” Trotz said. “He trusts his instincts and his ability. As a coach, you try to stay positive with all the good things he does with the puck, without the puck. You try to reinforce those habits and if you keep doing the right things over and over you break through. I liked his game last game, I thought he had a pretty good impact.”

Kuznetsov said he feels like he’s been improving each game, but unless he and his teammates can extend this series to a seventh game on Thursday, it might prove to be too little too late.

“You can see we are staying positive,” Kuznetsov said. “Before last game, we were down 3-1 and 75 percent of people said we are going to lose that game right? But no. There are lots of (fortitude) in this locker room, you know? Today we have to focus on one game.

“We’re not in the best position right now, but we’re still positive and you can see how guys smile. Not every team is smiling when they talk to media. We’re still positive because we trust in each other and we’re confident.” 

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.


A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.


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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.