After all the previews and pregame pageantry for the Capitals-Penguins series, a hockey game was finally played out. To both team’s standards, it was quite conservative based on solely the 3-2 scoreline in favor of Pittsburgh. With all the offensive firepower at their disposal, this should be a more hustle and bustle series, especially considering only two penalties were called the whole game. More on that later.
But first, it was actually a bit of a shock that 104 total shot attempts happened all game at five-on-five. If anything, what seemed to be a tight first period based on the 6-4 shots on goal count actually resulted in 28 of those shot attempts in comparison to just 26 of them in the third period. During that first stanza, Pittsburgh couldn’t generate any openings to get a shot on goal while Washington couldn’t stay in the offensive zone.
By the time everyone got on their seats, Washington was already down 2-0 thanks to Matt Niskanen pressing too high on the neutral zone followed by Nate Schmidt and Lars Eller losing their own battles on the net crash, respectively. Those two goals were the difference in the game as Washington were forced to release their defense-first shackles the rest of the game. That’s now the fourth time in seven postseason games they have given up the first goal and they simply have to stop doing this if they ever want to win the Stanley Cup this year. That said, the Capitals did a much better job from here on out of maintaining offensive zone pressure and unleashing their brand of speed from the neutral zone.
As a result, Washington came away with a 64.4-35.0 advantage in score-adjusted shot attempts according at even strength to Natural Stat Trick and a 2.3-1.8 advantage in score adjusted expected goals in all situations according to corsica.hockey. You’re asking for even more shot quality here? How about a 27.4-19.6 adjusted shots on goal advantage to the Capitals at even strength or a 36.5-16.5 advantage in adjusted even strength scoring chances? You would think officials Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollack would have recognized such effort when Pittsburgh would pull such egregious stunts to slow it down.
Instead, they only gave two power play opportunities throughout the whole game and they all went towards the Penguins. Now I get that some officials, especially in the biggest games in the sport, want to let the players play. But to have it to a point where no team has even one power play while there was genuine evidence of calls being unbearably missed is shameful. The most obvious of the bunch was where Bryan Rust undeniably had his right hand on top of the puck while Washington was in the middle of their six-on-five shooting gallery towards Marc Andre-Fleury near the end of the game. The second point of reference, admittedly, was where Washington got away with one of the most egregious too many men on the ice non-calls you’ll see in recent memory. The third was the softest slashing call you will ever see in a tightly called game by Matt Niskanen. The last was how there was not a single Penguin penalized after four of them decided to jump Matt Niskanen after a stoppage in play after said soft penalty. This led to Justin Williams needing to jump over the pile of Penguins in order to save his teammate.
I’m sorry for complaining about officials, but at minimum, there is 12 months worth of evidence of Washington getting the short straw on calls. I’ll still refuse to understand how Kris Letang only got a one-game suspension when he leaped and hit Marcus Johansson in the head. You know, a play that the NHL has been trying to never happen ever again for the past decade? I still am scarred angrily about how Patrick Hornqvist never got sent to the sin bin for cross checking T.J. Oshie in their last regular season matchup, yet Daniel Winnik needed to be sent to the sin bin himself for roughing, and again, calling B.S. towards Oshie being hurt, in order for Hornqvist to draw the ire of the referees. Instead of a should-have-been 5-on-4 to Washington, 4-on-4 play resumed the game.
The Penguins scored immediately that forever turned the tide in what should have been a comfortable-at-the-time Capitals lead into a Penguins 8-7 overtime win. Say what you want about one call, but that 4-on-4 goal led to the Penguins fans cheering and hollering in a way Penguins fans know best: when they smell blood and FEEL like they can make a come back towards a team with a scarred playoff history, no matter how insurmountable the odds were. That’s what happens when you live in a city who has lucked out so much with their pro football and hockey teams. Oh, let’s also never forget Sydney Crosby tripping Alex Ovechkin in that particular overtime period too. The win led to the Penguins splitting the regular season series and gave them enough hope that they can win this postseason series.
Am I excusing the Capitals completely? No, because history shows and will continue to show us that teams can win a series without even showing up to any of the games. As Ovechkin said postgame, “shit happens” all the time in hockey. Still, if we’re going to have another Capitals-Penguins series not decided completely on the players again, at a time where this arguably is Washington’s greatest and last chance at winning the Stanley Cup while the Great Eight is in town and at a time where the winner of this series should have a smooth ride the rest of the postseason, I really don’t know what to say about the people running this sport anymore.