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Caps lose Backstrom, Beagle but still win 9th straight


Caps lose Backstrom, Beagle but still win 9th straight

Post-game analysis of the Capitals’ 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night at Verizon Center:

How it happened: Goals by Justin Williams in the second period and Alex Ovechkin in the third erased a pair of one-goal deficits, setting the stage for Marcus Johansson’s game-winner on the power play 8:32 into the final period. Andre Burakovsky finished off the Sabres with his first goal since Oct. 23, a stretch of 25 games and Ovechkin potted an empty-netter to complete the scoring.

Kuz-tastic: Evgeny Kuznetsov helped set up three goals. He forced Buffalo goaltender Chad Johnson into a giveaway behind the net on Williams’ open net goal in the second period; swung behind the net and left a drop pass for Ovechkin early in the third; and, taking the place of injured Nicklas Backstrom on the power play, banked a pass off Johansson’s stick and behind Chad Johnson for the game-winner.

What it means: The Caps (28-6-2) have now won nine straight – all of them in regulation -- and are alone atop the NHL standings with 58 points, one more than the Dallas Stars, who have played two more games. The Caps also improved to a league-best 5-3-1 when trailing after two periods. They are already 19-0-0 when leading after two.

Closing in on 500: Ovechkin's two goals were his 19th and 20th of the season, moving him within five goals of 500. He's also three goals behind Dallas' Jamie Benn for the NHL lead.

Injuries mounting: Centers Nicklas Backstrom (undisclosed) and Jay Beagle (upper body) left the game in the second period and did not return. Both will be evaluated on Thursday before the Caps play the Carolina Hurricanes. Beagle’s last shift came with 5:27 remaining in the second period. Backstrom played two full periods and did not come out for the third.

Power play shuffle: With John Carlson out of the lineup with a lower body injury, the Caps went with a first power play unit of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson and Matt Niskanen. Their second unit had Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams, Jason Chimera and Connor Carrick.    

Nothing but hype: All the hype surrounding Zach Sill and the Caps exacting retribution on Nicolas Deslauriers was just that. Neither player paid much attention to the other. The referees called things pretty tightly, with Alex Ovechkin getting whistled for a roughing minor just 27 seconds into the game.

Jack knows hockey: In his first visit to Washington 19-year-old rookie Jack Eichel was an absolute joy to watch. He set up both Buffalo goals, whipping a backhand pass to Brian Gionta for a 1-0 lead and firing a shot that led to Zemgus Girgensons’ second-period goal to make it 2-1. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma seemed to call Eichel’s number every time the Caps’ third defense pairing of Taylor Chorney and Connor Carrick jumped over the boards.

Look ahead: Shortly after Wednesday night’s game the Caps were scheduled to catch a flight for Raleigh, where they’ll take on the Carolina Hurricanes, who are coming off a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night. The Canes are seventh in the Metro Division with a 15-17-5 record and are 8-9-2 on home ice. The Caps are 2-0-0 against the Canes this season, winning 4-1 at home on Oct. 17 and 2-1 in Raleigh on Dec. 21.   

[RELATED: Ovechkin goes to the box early after retaliating for big hit]

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George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final


George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues -- when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West -- to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place -- not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon -- were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games -- a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 -- but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career -- and first since 2015 with St. Louis -- Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.


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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.