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Evgeny Kuznetsov invokes Michael Jordan after strong Game 3 performance

Evgeny Kuznetsov invokes Michael Jordan after strong Game 3 performance

Professional athletes find inspiration from everywhere, including from athletes of different sports.

Evgeny Kuznetsov suffered an upper-body injury in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final that looked serious at the time, but he was somehow able to return for Game 3 and score the game-winner Saturday against the Vegas Golden Knights.

NBC Sports Washington analyst and former Cap Alan May called Kuznetsov's performance on Saturday the best game he's ever played.

But the fact that he was able to play doesn't mean he did so pain-free. He was asked after the game how he was able to manage any pain he was dealing with and still be effective.

"I mean like when you're hurt, you play a little better always," Kuznetsov said. "You have extra energy."

That's an interesting theory, but Kuznetsov had evidence to back it up.

"It's emotional stuff. Like Michael Jordan, when he play his best game, he got hurt, got 53 points."

Wait, what?

Kuznetsov is most likely referring to Jordan's Game 2 performance against the Boston Celtics from 1986. In that game, Jordan scored 63 points (not 53) despite playing on a broken foot.

Kuznetsov was quick to say he was not comparing himself to Jordan, he was just using that famous game as an example for how he knew he could be effective in his return.

That extra energy led to a two-point night as he led the Caps to a 2-1 series lead.

So now instead of seeing the Caps lose one of their best players, the Golden Knights have to contend with Jordan in skates. That's quite the turnaround.

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A frustrating Game 6 loss, but Caps can't dwell on the negative

A frustrating Game 6 loss, but Caps can't dwell on the negative

RALEIGH — By the end of the night the frustration was evident. Three times the Capitals have played at PNC Arena during this Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series and three times they have left the ice stick-smashingly angry. 

Capitals coach Todd Reirden screamed at the officials. Alex Ovechkin earned a game misconduct after a mock wave following a late penalty call. By then the Carolina Hurricanes had already assured there would be one final game in this closer-than-expected series with a 5-2 win. Now both teams face elimination with Game 7 looming Wednesday at Capital One Arena. 

Washington’s anger was understandable. Alex Ovechkin apparently poked home the game-tying goal with 9:26 remaining. But while the Capitals celebrated, referee Kyle Rehman blew his whistle. In his view, Ovechkin had shoved Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek’s pads to force the puck into the net. 

The NHL Situation Room in Toronto upheld that call on the ice after the Capitals tied it. Just 1:24 later, ex-Capitals forward Justin Williams stuck a dagger in the heart of his old team with a deflected goal to give the Hurricanes a 4-2 lead.

"I don't think anyone expected it to be easy,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “They played well all series. We were up 2-0 and we were probably fortunate to be up 2-0 and we've been good on home ice and now we have a Game 7 and it is probably good that we have home ice."

There were other issues on Monday. Dmitry Orlov was whistled for embellishment in the second period that denied Washington a power play. Carolina tied the game 2-2 at 1:56 of the second period when referees – in the Capitals’ view – missed an obvious slash by Sebastian Aho on defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler behind the net. His attempted clear was flubbed and Aho found Teuvo Teravainen alone in front for an easy goal.

None of it matters now. The Capitals didn’t play well enough to win anyway, especially in a ragged second period that ominously looked like the 5-0 Hurricanes win in Game 3. Reirden himself admitted that Carolina earned the breaks it got. Goalie Braden Holtby was especially critical of his team for not building on a dominant 6-0 win at home in Game 5 on Saturday. 

“I don’t know. I thought we played pretty well to come out and we just faded,” Holtby said. “I’m not sure why. At this point it doesn’t matter. It’s over with and it’s down to one game.”

The challenge will be leaving all of that negativity in the PNC Arena locker room. One player walked away and said to no one in particular “No goal….what a call.” The sarcasm dripped. But it can’t follow the Capitals back home to Washington. This group of players has plenty of experience putting bad playoff losses behind them. 

If anything carries over into Game 7, however, they could be in trouble. Those days are thought to be long over after last spring’s Cup. And maybe they are. But the Capitals will have to forget about what happened in Raleigh. They have one last chance. It can't be clouded by what happened here.  

"It's over. Again, right now nothing you can do,” Ovechkin said. “After fight, you can't do anything. It was a good battle. Good for them, they win Game 6, and you know, Game 7 is going to be much interesting. We know how to play that. Pressure on both teams, but it's a good chance for us to beat them at home." 

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Right call, bad rule: Ovechkin's disallowed goal shows the ridiculous standard of goalie interference

Right call, bad rule: Ovechkin's disallowed goal shows the ridiculous standard of goalie interference

Alex Ovechkin thought he had tied Game 6 in the third period as he came streaking in trying to poke a loose puck into the net. As the puck crossed the goal line and Ovechkin celebrated with his teammates, the referee paused a moment, surrounded by Carolina Hurricanes players, then waved his arms. No goal.

The call proved to be one of the pivotal moments of Washington’s Game 6 loss and the Caps never recovered. Instead of tying the game at 3 and stealing momentum away from the Hurricanes, the Caps allowed two more goals to Carolina for the exclamation as the Hurricanes forced Game 7.

Evgeny Kuznetsov skated past the net with the puck, put on the brakes and tried to curl the puck back into the net to catch Mrazek off-guard. Mrazek had the puck between his pads and turned, but Ovechkin saw a loose puck, came in and pushed it into the net. The referee waved it off almost immediately.

“We make a push, we scored a goal – I think it was clear,” Ovechkin said, “But again, it's on referee decisions and they made decisions.”

The play was a frustrating one not just because of its importance, but because the Caps were not exactly sure why the goal was disallowed in the first place.

“It’s kind of unclear for me as well right now,” Todd Reirden told the media after the game. 
“As playoffs go on there’s not a lot of communication between the refs and the coaches as there is during the regular season. They made their decision and it really wasn’t up for debate. They don’t have to come and give you a reason why and they did not come to the bench and tell me why.”

The problem is that Ovechkin caught the pad of Mrazek while going for the puck resulting in incidental contact. That was enough to disallow the goal. The Caps challenged, but the call was upheld.

The NHL released the following explanation of the call:

At 10:34 of third period in the Capitals/Hurricanes game, Washington requested a Coach’s Challenge to review the “Interference on the Goalkeeper” decision that resulted in a “no goal” call.

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Referee, the Situation Room confirmed that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek by pushing his pad, which caused the puck to enter the net. According to Rule 69.3, “If an attacking player initiates contact with a goalkeeper, incidental or otherwise, while the goalkeeper is in his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.”

Therefore, the original call is upheld – no goal Washington Capitals.

By the letter of the law, this is the correct call. Mrazek was in the crease and you cannot argue Ovechkin did not make contact with Mrazek’s pad. While he was clearly going for the puck and not attempting to push Mrazek, it is irrelevant as the rule states even incidental contact will result in a no goal call.

Here’s the problem: This is a dumb rule. To say any contact with a goalie in the crease will result in a disallowed goal is a ridiculously strict standard that does not take into account battles over loose pucks that literally happen multiple times in every game.

“I saw the puck,” Ovechkin said. “He didn't get it in control. He didn't see that, so I don't know what the referee saw or what the explanation was.”

“From our angle from the bench it looked like the puck was loose,” Reirden said. “We talked with our video staff and they felt like it was worth a challenge in that situation. That’s not how the league or the referees saw it and that’s a decision they made. But for us, we thought the puck was loose. It was still a puck that was in play.”

But if even incidental contact can result in no goal, there is almost no way for a player to battle for a loose puck in the crease because he almost certainly will make contact with the goalie.

That puck was loose. It was in between Mrazek’s pads and it was loose. Ovechkin should be allowed to battle for the puck, but he can’t.

"If he has it covered, you can't push him in,” Brooks Orpik said, “But we didn't think he had it covered and if he doesn't have it covered usually you can get in there and it is fair game and it is kind of like a rebound.”

Rebounds are a part of hockey. Battles for loose pucks are a part of hockey. Pretending like this never happens in the crease is absurd.

If the rule stated that you cannot make intentional contact with a goalie within the crease, that is understandable. If the debate was over whether or not Ovechkin was going for the puck or intentionally pushing Mrazek’s pads, that is understandable. The fact that this goal was disallowed because Ovechkin is not able to battle for a puck that was clearly loose is an insane standard.

The Caps were upset after Game 6 over the disallowed goal and they should be. But it wasn’t a bad call that screwed them, it was a bad rule.

"What I can say?” Ovechkin said. “They make a call. It's on them, so it's over."

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