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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.

2018 NHL mock draft roundup: Flyers going forward-heavy in 1st round

2018 NHL mock draft roundup: Flyers going forward-heavy in 1st round

For the third time in the past five years, the Flyers will have two first-round draft picks thanks to Ron Hextall’s commitment to drafting and developing being implemented when he took over in 2014.

Hextall has spent the past five offseasons largely acquiring assets as he builds. As part of the Brayden Schenn trade last June, the Flyers received the St. Louis Blues’ first-round pick (14th overall) in addition to their own (19th). The 2018 NHL draft begins tonight at American Airlines Center in Dallas and concludes Saturday afternoon with Rounds 2-7.

With the buildup to one of the most important dates of the NHL calendar year for Flyers fans over, we’ll soon find out what the Hextall will do. As we’re hours away from the finish line, let’s round up the mock drafts to see what people believe the Flyers might do at Nos. 14 and 19.

14th overall

Corey Pronman, The Athletic: Vitali Kravtsov, RW, Chelyabinsk

Pronman’s take: “The Ron Hextall regime showed it’s willing to invest this high in Russians playing in Russia when they picked German Rubtsov. Kravtsov will play in the KHL next season and then likely come over. He had one of the best endings to a season I’ve ever seen from a prospect, and I’ve heard from several teams that consider him a top 10 talent.”

Dave Isaac, Courier-Post: Joel Farabee, LW, USNTDP

Isaac’s take: “The Flyers need a sniper and while Farabee won’t jump to the NHL right away, he’s got a knack for the net. Considering he’s 6-feet tall he needs to put more muscle on, currently listed at 163 pounds, but otherwise he has excellent tools. His hockey IQ is something that the Flyers will find attractive and he competes at both ends of the ice.”

Charlie O’Connor, The Athletic: Vitali Kravtsov, RW, Chelyabinsk

O’Connor’s take: “Joel Farabee would be tempting at this spot, but Hextall’s tendency is to gravitate towards prospects who came on strong at the end of their draft years (Sanheim, Allison). Kravtsov exploded for 11 points in 16 games during the KHL playoffs, and the Flyers showed with their selection of German Rubtsov in 2016 that they’re willing to do their homework on high-end Russian prospects and invest high picks in them if they like the skill set.”

Adam Kimelman, NHL.com: Joel Farabee, LW, USNTDP

Kimelman’s take: “The Flyers have drafted a number of talented forwards the past two years, including five in the first four rounds in 2017. But what separates Farabee (5-11, 164) is his speed, combined with a high hockey IQ and a quick-release shot that produced 33 goals in 62 games this season.”

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet: Rasmus Kupari, C, Kärpät

Marek’s take: “High-end skating and a dangerous shot. His offensive game is on point, but it’s the other side of the puck that he needs to work on.”

Craig Button, TSN: Serron Noel, RW, Oshawa

Button’s take: “Big, strong, smart, and can play the game with skill, smarts and power. Just keeps getting better.”

Mike G. Morreale, NHL.com: Joel Farabee, LW, USNTDP

Morreale’s take: “He's a two-way puck mover with outstanding vision who plays a hard game in all areas of the rink. Committed to Boston University in 2018-19, Farabee was second in scoring with the NTDP U-18 team with 76 points and had eight power-play goals and four game-winning goals.”

19th overall

Corey Pronman, The Athletic: Martin Kaut, RW, HC Dynamo

Pronman’s take: “After the combine, I heard some teams were scared off from drafting Kaut in the first round due to a heart condition, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported those issues have subsided following his procedure. I have no idea whether the Flyers are scared off or not, but he checks a lot of the hockey sense, two-way play and strong finish boxes they’ve valued in recent years.”

Dave Isaac, Courier-Post: Martin Kaut, RW, HC Dynamo

Isaac’s take: “The Czech winger couldn’t take part in the physical aspects of the combine because the medical test revealed a heart condition that required surgery, but it isn’t expected to affect his hockey career. He has good hands in tight, plays along the boards rather well and takes the puck to the net. He’s already been tied to the Flyers. Of his 14 interviews at the combine, he told one Czech news organization, he had the best feelings from the Flyers and New York Rangers. ”

Charlie O’Connor, The Athletic: Isac Lundestrom, C, Luleå HF

O’Connor’s take: “The Flyers have always loved versatile, well-rounded forwards with high-end hockey IQ, and that’s Lundestrom in a nutshell. There are questions about his ultimate offensive upside, but it’s not easy to score 15 points in 42 games as a teenager in a league against men, especially when it’s the SHL, one of the best leagues in the world. I could see Lundestrom’s combination of a high floor and top-sixer ceiling being very attractive to Hextall.”

Adam Kimelman, NHL.com: Rasmus Sandin, D, Sault Ste. Marie

Kimelman’s take: “The Flyers' crop of defensemen has graduated to the NHL (Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg) or is close to NHL-ready (Samuel Morin, Philippe Myers), so now would be a good time to start restocking. The Sweden-born Sandin had an easy transition to North America this season, and the Flyers saw a lot of him playing with top forward prospect Morgan Frost, the No. 27 pick of the 2017 draft.”

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet: Dominik Bokk, RW, Växjö

Marek’s take: “Germany continues to send high-end players to the NHL. Bokk plays a strong offensive game. Silky mitts, as the kids say.”

Craig Button, TSN: Bode Wilde, D, USNTDP

Button’s take: “All the elements to be a very good defenceman. Skates, handles puck, good shot and can be a physical force.”

Mike G. Morreale, NHL.com: Mattias Samuelsson, D, USNTDP

Morreale’s take: “Samuelsson (6-3, 217) plays a steady, physical game, reminiscent of his father, Kjell Samuelsson, who played 813 NHL games and works in player development for the Flyers. Mattias had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists), 113 penalty minutes and 93 shots on goal in 58 games this season.”

More on the 2018 NHL draft

• Prospects the Flyers could select with the 14th overall pick

• Smith, with little bit of Gostisbehere and Provorov, should attract Flyers

• Flyers anticipate making both first-round draft picks

• Flyers need to find needle in haystack on Day 2 of NHL draft

What the 2018-19 NHL salary cap increasing means for the Flyers

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Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers

What the 2018-19 NHL salary cap increasing means for the Flyers

After another year of financial growth, NHL teams will have more spending money this summer.

The NHL on Thursday said that the 2018-19 salary cap will increase to $79.5 million. It's the seventh straight season the cap has grown since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

With the $4.5 million jump, it’s the largest climb since 2013-14 to 2014-15, when it rose $4.7 million from $64.3 million to $69 million. Last season, the cap was $75 million.

So what does the cap increase mean for the Flyers and where do they stand now?

Projected cap space

Before the increase, the Flyers had about $17.2 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly.com. With the boost, that figure jumps up to $21.7 million.

The Flyers currently have roughly $57.8 million in projected cap hits, which includes 17 players.

Heading into the summer, the Flyers have 16 free agents — nine restricted — after re-signing Colin McDonald to an AHL contract. Their RFAs are Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin, Taylor Leier, Alex Lyon, Anthony Stolarz, Reece Willcox, Danick Martel and Petr Mrazek.

The UFAs are Matt Read, Brandon Manning, Valtteri Filppula, Johnny Oduya, Dustin Tokarski, John Muse and Will O’Neill. The Flyers haven’t shut the door on Filppula returning but it would come at a significant pay decrease. The rest likely aren’t returning.

Ilya Bryzgalov’s compliance buyout remains on the books through 2026-27 but doesn’t count toward the cap. R.J. Umberger’s buyout finally comes off the books this summer.

Since taking over as general manager in 2014-15, Ron Hextall has prioritized operating responsibility. It was a complete shift in philosophy from the previous front office.

The Flyers began the 2017-18 season with $2.4 million in cap space and finished with $1.3 million. They didn’t use long-term injured reserve, meaning they had no LTIR relief.

Hextall has dug the Flyers out of salary cap purgatory and 2017-18 was the first in a while the team did not have to worry about being cap compliant at any point of the season.

It’s safe to say that whatever unfolds over the next few months, Hextall will want to carry at least a $2 million cushion into the Flyers’ opener vs. the Golden Knights in Vegas on Oct. 4.

How it affects free agency

This is an important note to remember as we progress through the offseason: just because the salary cap officially increased, it doesn’t mean it’s going to change Hextall’s philosophy.

It’s an odd time for the Flyers as they look to take the next step without abandoning the plan Hextall laid out five summers ago. They are going to change, but just how much?

After his pre-draft news conference last week, Hextall said that he’s had no conversation with Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s returning to the NHL after five seasons in the KHL. Not a shocker.

What did give us insight into Hextall’s plan approaching free agency was him closing the door on the Flyers making long-term commitments. He left the door open for the Flyers to dip into the market but ultimately shut down the possibility of them chasing a John Tavares type.

“We’d like to get better,” Hextall told reporters, “but we’re not going to do something stupid long term to try to get better [for] one or two years. We have money to spend short term. We can do something short term in the sense that it doesn’t bottle us up in three or four years.”

Reading between the lines, Hextall knows what’s coming down the road. Entry-level contracts expiring and kids coming up through the ranks. That means contract extensions and raises.

It’s not just a salary cap problem anymore; it’s more about roster spots. Hextall doesn’t want to block prospects by bringing in Band-Aids that will only create issues down the line.

The cap does come into play, of course. But it’s not the only factor. At least not anymore.

How they could spend

Hextall said last week he desires righty defensemen and would like to add another veteran. With Filppula’s contract expiring, the Flyers have a hole to fill on the third line. Some may argue, with valid evidence, the Flyers could benefit from bringing in another top-sixer.

The problem is, this summer’s free-agent market doesn’t have many big fish. Outside of Tavares, the forwards don’t scream “come to get me.” There are a few veteran options that could make sense — Paul Stastny or Riley Nash, for example. If we look at right-handed D-men, John Carlson and Mike Green head the list of UFAs but cross Carlson off the wish list.

With $21.7 million in cap space, the Flyers have enough wiggle room to check off their internal checklist and bring in one or two pieces via free agency.

But don’t let the cap increase fool you, it won’t change how Hextall attacks this summer.

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