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Game 1 Recap: Quick Strikes Propel Penguins Past Capitals

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A glut of goals in the third gives the Penguins home-ice advantage

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It probably can’t be fairly classified as the kind of “turtling” on display during the Washington Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But all the same, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ odd-man rushes ended up costing the Caps dearly during a five-minute third-period onslaught Thursday at Capital One Arena. The Penguins rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 and take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Plus-Minus:

  • Plus: Braden Holtby, one miscue and all, kept Washington in it during a second period that was a preview of things to come in the final frame. He stopped all six shots he saw in that period, stifling several high-danger Pittsburgh chances.
  • Minus: The Caps lost a two-goal lead. Yes, again.

10 Thoughts:

  • In a way, the pace favored Pittsburgh from the beginning. The teams went up-and-down the ice for most of the first 20 minutes with scoring chances outpacing shots on goal in that period, 24-15. Again, Holtby stopped what he had to for as long as he could. But as Devante Smith-Pelly said after the game, “you definitely don’t want to trade chances with” a team whose speed is the primary reason they’ve won the last two Stanley Cups.
  • Washington showed a bit of speed early, too, though. The play leading to their first goal 17 seconds into the contest started in the Capitals’ zone with Tom Wilson finding Ovechkin on the left wing. He lobbed a pass to Kuznetsov, who was already behind the Penguin backcheckers and fired it past Murray’s glove side. For the Caps to even this series, they have to finsish those kinds of incisive breakouts.
  • Regardless of the misplayed puck in his trapezoid that led to Jake Guentzel’s game-winning goal, Holtby played a mostly fine game. He stopped seven high-danger chances in the first two periods, but at the end of the day, he didn’t have one more save in him. Afterward, he said that the Caps played to the Penguins’ strengths at times.
  • One strength of Washington’s that remains so is the penalty kill, a unit that has now finished off 19 man-down situations in a row.
  • If you’re looking for a positive? The Capitals’ neutral zone presence was generally strong throughout the night, causing 14 turnovers and breaking down what initially looked to be potentially dangerous Pittsburgh chances. What I noticed in particular was that their sticks were all over the ice and disrupting every loose puck they could.
  • Statistically, the Caps dominated the game. And even if that can mean little in the playoffs and especially in a single postseason game, over the full series against Columbus, the team with more and better chances (the Capitals) won. In 55 minutes of 5-on-5 play, Washington led 64-46 in shot attempts, 27-23 in shots, 30-26 in scoring chances, and 9-8 in high-quality chances. “For 56 minutes, I thought we played great,” Smith-Pelly said.
  • The bad news? They won’t have nearly as strong of an advantage in Game 2 on Sunday if Evgeni Malkin is healed from a lower-body injury. He was on the ice for the Penguins’ morning skate on Thursday, a sign that he’s nearing a return.
  • To that end, there’s no other way to put it. This was a colossal missed opportunity for the Capitals. Up 2-0 with less than 20 minutes to go with both Malkin and Carl Hagelin out of the Pittsburgh lineup, Washington had a golden opportunity to gain the upper hand and get an understandably skeptical fanbase fully behind them. Instead, Sunday turns into about as much of a must-win game as you can get this early in a series. I know that Game 2 against the Blue Jackets felt similarly important, but this is a team who has shown time and again that they can and will step on the Capitals’ throat when given the slightest window. The Caps haven’t done that this postseason, losing a two-goal lead now four times between Games 1 and 2 against Columbus, the latter of which saw it happen twice, and on Thursday. Washington can most certainly win four of the next six, and I still believe that they will, in line with my prediction in today’s roundtable.
  • Ovechkin seemed to redeem himself from an earlier miss of a wide-open net 28 seconds into in the third period when he ripped one past Murray from the left circle. But on an ensuing Pittsburgh counterattack that eventually tied the game, he was a step behind Sidney Crosby when the playoffs’ leading point-getter one-timed it beneath Holtby’s glove.
  • In summary, Washington still has a path to victory. The aggressive forechecks and reliable neutral-zone play are both good building blocks; throw in some quicker shots and a body to the front of the net, along with keeping to those principles in an attempt to build on a lead already gained, and this series should be tied heading back to Pittsburgh.

Also, 100 career playoff points for Washington’s captain:

We’ll be back on Sunday afternoon for Game 2 at 3 p.m.