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Penguins lost to Flyers on stunning goal -- here's how that affects their playoff picture

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Penguins lost to Flyers on stunning goal -- here's how that affects their playoff picture

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs started today, the Washington Capitals would have to face none other than the Pittsburgh Penguins first in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. 

As of Monday morning, the Caps currently hold a three-point lead over the Penguins, who suffered a stunning loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins have now lost their last two -- the St. Louis Blues rocked them Saturday, 5-1 -- and have dropped three of their last six, but they beat the Caps in there last week too.

Making a late playoff push, Flyers James van Riemsdyk scored with 19 seconds left in the third period to tie the game at 1-1 and force overtime. And in the final seconds of overtime, Philly center Sean Couturier snuck another one past Penguins goalie Matt Murray for the 2-1 win.

The unlikely comeback is the first time in NHL history that a team knocked off the same opponent more than once in a season with a game-tying goal in the final 30 seconds, after the Flyers beat the Penguins under similar circumstances about three weeks ago. With another W over their instate rivals, Philadelphia is now within six points of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the conference's second wild card spot.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting at the top of the conference with an astonishing 114 points, followed by the Boston Bruins (95 points), the Toronto Maple Leafs (91 points) and the New York Islanders (91 points). The Caps are currently fifth (91 points) in the conference, the Penguins are sixth (88 points), the Carolina Hurricanes are seventh (85 points) and Columbus is eighth (84 points). 

Along with the potential Caps-Pens series if the playoff standings don't change, Tampa Bay would play the Blue Jackets, the Bruins would play the Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes would face the Islanders.

Tied for first in the Metro Division with the New York Islanders, Washington has 10 games remaining in the regular season, starting with the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday on the road. The Caps then have a four-game homestand and will close out the regular season with two games against the conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, two games against Carolina and a season finale at home against the Islanders.

Conference wide, the Caps and Islanders are also currently tied with the Maple Leafs, leaving a bit of room for the playoff matchups to change. A late surge from the Caps, plus a few losses from the Leafs and Islanders could have them taking on the Bruins. Or, on the other side, if Washington stumbles, it could still get stuck with the Penguins or maybe even the Islanders. 

The Penguins only have nine games left in the regular season. They have two games each against the Hurricanes, the Detroit Red Wings, the Nashville Predators and the New York Rangers. In the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes are barely holding onto that wild-card spot, while the Red Wings have already been eliminated and the Rangers are almost there too. The Predators are currently fourth in the Western Conference.

For the Flyers after Sunday's win, they still have 10 games remaining in the regular season to surge into the playoff picture, they're not just chasing the Blue Jackets. The Montreal Canadiens are currently the first Eastern Conference team out of the playoffs and are only three points behind Columbus with 10 games left -- including ones against the Flyers, the Hurricanes, the Blue Jackets and the Caps on April 4.

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Ready for Retribution: Tom Wilson's quick KO lights Caps-Pens fireworks

Ready for Retribution: Tom Wilson's quick KO lights Caps-Pens fireworks

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — Tom Wilson knew what was coming. 

Suspended the first time the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins met this season on Oct. 4, a reckoning was coming one way or the other. Wilson’s illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese during the Stanley Cup playoff series last May 1 wasn’t forgotten. It left Wilson with a three-game suspension and Aston-Reese with a broken jaw.  

But instead of waiting around for retribution, Wilson delivered his own in the first minute of a 2-1 loss on Wednesday. Wilson thought Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak had hit teammate Matt Niskanen high, so he dropped his gloves and charged.

One punch, two punches and a third buckled Oleksiak and left him cut under the left eye. He had to be helped to the bench and did not return.   

"I think both parties knew,” Wilson said. “I read the stuff that's said after last season and leading up to it. Yeah, I think it probably had to be done sooner or later, give [Oleksiak] a chance to defend his teammate after what happened last year. Obviously, you never want to see a guy go down like that. That's hockey. I respect him as a player, and it's unfortunate to see that."

Wilson will always play a central role in any game between these two teams. Lest anyone accuse him of being just a goon, Wilson feathered a beautiful pass to teammate Lars Eller on an odd-man rush that led to a 1-0 Washington lead at 6:38 of the second period. 

“I think Willie as a player probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he brings,” Eller said. “Willie can do a lot of things. His game has definitely grown a lot this season. It already grew a lot I think last season, and in the playoffs, but he’s taken another step this year and it’s good for our team.”

In just 14 games thanks to his reduced suspension and an upper-body injury, Wilson has 16 points (nine goals, seven assists). He played on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. But his fight with Oleksiak was the spark that lit the fuse on a tinder box of a game that didn’t need any help.

For three years, the Penguins and Capitals have played playoff series that eventually led to a Stanley Cup champion. Wilson has been in the middle of all of it.  

“I know our guys knew it was going to be a spirited game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought our guys competed hard and they gave Jamie a big, rousing applause after the game and he deserved it.”

The Penguins played 59 minutes, 55 seconds with just five defensemen, but held on for the win thanks to heroic work from the penalty kill, strong goaltending from Matt Murray and a little luck. Three times Washington hit the post or snuck a shot past Murray only to see it stay out of the net.

There were penalties and big saves and screaming matches and we are four months from the games that really matter. But the history of the series turned a regular-season game into much more than that on Wednesday.

Asked if he remembered Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford’s quotes about him in May after the season ended – that Wilson “couldn’t run quick enough to get away” from Oleksiak rather than fight him after his hit on Aston-Reese in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series – Wilson demurred. That was ancient history.

But in this rivalry, memories are long, and nothing is really forgotten.  

"It doesn't really matter, I don't think,” Wilson said. “You know, Oleksiak plays tough. He's a big part of their team, and he came out pretty aggressive right on the first shift there. He went a long way to make that hit, and right when we looked at each other, it was on. That's hockey."

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Tom Wilson sparks latest round of Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry beef

Tom Wilson sparks latest round of Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry beef

CAPITAL ONE ARENA – Do not tell the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins it is only December. To say Wednesday’s contest between the two rivals was an intense one would be putting it mildly.

It took all of 55 seconds before fisticuffs broke out between the two teams, as Tom Wilson knocked Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak senseless to the delight of the red-clad Caps fans. The cheering did not stop there as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin could be seen screaming at each other from their benches after the fight.

Crosby explained why the two began jawing at one another after the game.

"I'm just trying to find out why it wasn't an instigator [penalty] and he started yelling at me for some reason,” Crosby said. “My conversation was with the official, not with him, so I don't know why he felt the need to come over."

Since, of course, you never see both captains discussing calls with referees. That just doesn’t happen.

Oh….

It’s not all that clear exactly what Crosby saw to justify an instigator call. After Oleksiak finished a check on Matt Niskanen, Wilson immediately made a beeline for him, but he certainly did not catch Oleksiak by surprise.

“He went a long way to make that hit, and right when we looked at each other, it was on,” Wilson said.

Both players knew a fight was coming, and Oleksiak even got off the first swing.

As a captain, there’s nothing wrong with Crosby appealing to the referees on his team’s behalf, just like there’s nothing wrong with an opposing captain inserting himself into that conversation to make sure an opponent isn't able to get that extra call from the refs.

Talking to the referees is part of the job when you get that C on your chest and it would have looked really bad for Ovechkin if Crosby had managed to wheedle an instigator call without any opposition from the Caps’ captain.

Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin really did anything wrong here, but like everything on Wednesday cooler heads did not prevail and things escalated into a shouting match between two of the sport’s greatest players.

If this is what we can expect should these two teams meet again in the postseason, there’s only one question left to ask: Is it April yet?

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