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In Game 2, the Caps put together a sluggish performance bolstered by a strong third period and nearly stole a game they had no right even being in. The frustration after that game was palpable, as was the concern over how long they'd be without Brooks Orpik. So it seemed like Game 3 would be one of two things: a much better performance by the good guys, or a complete blowout.
Joke's on all of us - it was a little of both, and then something completely different.
First, here's Monday night's Plus/Minus:
- Plus: The overall effort. The Caps needed to be better tonight, to a man, and for the most part they were. They outplayed the Penguins for pretty much the entire game, outshooting them and dominating offensive-zone play. That it didn't show up on the scoreboard until the very end was equal parts bad luck, a bit of a need for more net presence and Matt Murray not being totally incompetent.
- Minus: This hit.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps came out of the gate flying, which is exactly what they needed to do after such a miserable effort overall last game (save for the last 15 minutes or so). That they gave up the first goal, and then the second, within the first ten minutes was a result of... oh, who knows? Bad bounces or voodoo or contracts with the Devil himself. Whatever it was, it had the Caps in a 2-0 hole early and it felt like maybe this would be one of Those Games.
- It didn't stop them from continuing to control the game, though, as they peppered Matt Murray with 12 shots in each of the first two periods. But throw in a Nate Schmidt turnover that resulted in a goal by Carl Hagelin late in the second, and it seemed as if it would be all for naught.
- Late in the first period, Kris Letang came across for a hit on Marcus Johansson, launching himself into Johansson’s head. The hit resulted in a two-minute penalty for interference to Letang and caused Johansson to head back to the room (although he did return, thankfully) - two nights after Orpik was given an interference minor for a hit to the head of Olli Maatta (who would not return). Just another nasty incident in a series that has already had its fair share of them.
- So here’s where things get interesting. Over the past two days Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has plainly stated that Orpik’s hit on Maatta was the kind of hit they needed to get out of the game. Meanwhile Barry Trotz expressed frustration with the length of Orpik’s sentence and dropped a pointed comment about lopsided officiating in the Penguins favor. You can argue that Letang’s hit wasn’t as late or "predatory" as Orpik’s; you could also argue that Orpik didn’t launch himself into Maatta’s head the way Letang did on Johansson. But ultimately it's a hit that deserves a suspension, just as Orpik's did. Your move, NHL.
- In Game 2, the Caps seemed to be lacking in the physical, grinding style of play that has become so integral to their system (the Orpik hit aside). After having one player fined, and another suspended a game later, it wouldn't be out of line to be concerned that the team would shrink further from the physicality. Thankfully those concerns were unfounded, as the Caps not only didn't shrink but elevated their physical play - and did so cleanly - to the tune of 58 hits, including a whopping (and team-leading) nine from Johansson. Don't wake the Marcus, Penguins.
- As was the case in Games 1 and 2, special teams played a big role in this game... but not in the way they did in the first round, for either team. Both the Caps and Pens have been nearly perfect on the penalty kill, and of course by extension, almost entirely fruitless on the power play (the Caps' power-play tally last game the only one of the series so far). The Caps' penalty kill was again up to the task tonight, stopping all three Penguins' opportunities and limiting Pittsburgh to just three shots on those extra-man chances.
- This series has, for the most part, existed without contributions from the two biggest names. But Alex Ovechkin, who hasn't scored a goal in five games, wasn't about to extend that streak to a season-high six. His laser of a shot finally beat Murray a little under halfway through the third period and gave the Caps some life.
- For a guy brought in for his playoff acumen, Justin Williams has so far been something of a disappointment. He hasn't produced as expected or even looked all that sharp so far. Whether he's simply in a slump or there's something else going on, it's hard to tell, but the Caps need him and the rest of the secondary scoring to step up.
- And yet as the old adage goes, a blind squirrel is still right twice a day… or something… because Williams was the one giving the Caps hope late in the game as he finally found the empty net to shave the deficit to one. More things like that, please, Justin.
- The late push from the Caps may have ultimately fallen short, but it was a dominant effort and had the fun bonus of making every rear end in CONSOL clench nervously as the clock wound down. The Caps fired 20 shots on Murray in the third period to bring their game total up to an insane 49 total, came close to pulling even in the dying seconds and hopefully reminded themselves - and all of us - that they're capable of outplaying the Penguins.
A loss is never a good thing, especially in the playoffs, when every game means so much more. That said, if you were expecting the Caps to waltz into Pittsburgh and take both road games, you may have had an unrealistic picture of how this series was going to go. To regain home-ice advantage, all they need to do is earn a split; they came awfully close to doing that tonight.
Put together the same kind of effort next game against a Pens team that may be without their top defenseman... and this series comes back to Washington all knotted up.
And now, this...