The Pittsburgh Penguins left their inspirational coach nearly speechless. Nearly. On a night when Capitals coach Barry Trotz refused to answer questions about Alexander Ovechkin’s play, Mike Sullivan was effusive about his captain, Sidney Crosby.
On a night when over 19,000 fans filled the Capitals arena, sure their team was about to slay a dragon which has burned them for over 25 years, it was only 20 players in white who cheered.
The Penguins turned in their best performance of the playoffs, in their biggest game.
1) What Changed?
Per Mike Sullivan, they found a couple small details on the chalkboard. Matt Cullen gave Sullivan a bit more credit–“he’s one of the best X’s and O’s coaches I’ve had,” said Cullen.
Bryan Rust said it was a matter of making better decisions with the puck, moving it with purpose rather than just clearing the zone. Rust noticeably made several sharp decisions with the puck in front of his own net.
All of the above are correct. The Capitals played it safe. They gave the Pens more ice to work with and the Pens gleefully took it. While the Capitals hugged the wall like a first time skater, trying to break up the Pens breakouts-the Penguins simply moved the play just inside of the Capitals perimeter ambush and skated past. The defensemen made good passes and the forwards looked for those breakout passes was another huge change.
You do have a better chance to win when you can escape your own zone, eh?
2) Fleury, Fleury, Fleury.
Marc-Andre Fleury had to make only 29 saves. After being shelled in his previous 11 games, only facing 29 shots must have seemed like a vacation. Fleury made every save, including one on Ovechkin with the shaft of his stick. After which, Fleury showed his shaft some love. (Yep, I wrote that and its correct. I still feel shame).
Marc-Andre Fleury shows some love to the shaft of his stick pic.twitter.com/sWKlTLWS2D
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 11, 2017
Fleury stole 2 games in the series. Last night, he was simply great. Emphasis on “simply”.
3) Mike Sullivan
“We’ve been through so much since I’ve been here. And they just always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges or adversities this league throws at us. And they did it again tonight.”
“That was the closest thing to the Penguins identity we’ve seen in the playoffs, so far.”
“When you get into game 7’s, it’s about compete level, mindset and… heart and soul.”
4) Pens D
Tired, beaten and battered. The Penguins changed their defensive pairings–and it worked perfectly. Justin Schultz skated with Olli Maatta and the two were an effective top pairing. Very good, actually. Ian Cole skated with Chad Ruhwedel and it appeared Ruhwedel’s fresh legs added years to Ian Cole’s life.
And… Brian Dumoulin. The Penguins #8 flattened the Capitals famous #8, which spurred the Penguins transition for the game-winning goal: A pretty top-shelf finish from Bryan Rust. The “Executioner” finished another team.
This hit was perhaps the most visually symbolic representation of the Penguins-Capitals rivalry:
He killed a man pic.twitter.com/uFYKm5z8OX
— #burghproud (@taylastivka) May 11, 2017
5) Phil Kessel & Evgeni Malkin
The Penguins survived without a great game from Malkin. And not much from Kessel. “At least they weren’t bad” isn’t good enough.
Malkin needs to take a breath and relax. Perhaps he’s feeling pressure to be great, but the point totals are outweighing his hockey, thus far.
Kessel hasn’t scored many even strength goals in 2017. If he’s not going to fill the net, he needs to do more for his team. Period.
6) 4th Line Heroes
Scott Wilson provided some aggressive forechecks and created turnovers, while Rowney provided wall support and solid backcheck. The line looked really good. They definitely earned another go-round.
6B) Bryan Rust
Bryan Rust is a killer in elimination games and game 7’s. He makes $640,000, per year.
Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams makes 3.25 million per year.
Who do you prefer?
The Washington media didn’t appear to pick up what teammates and the coach were laying down: Unhappiness that Ovechkin again tried to do too much and played a selfish game to do so. It was Ovechkin, with his head down, who turned the puck over at the Penguins blue line–leading to the first Pengiuns goal.
John Carlson‘s comments after Game 6–that some guys on the team don’t stick with the plan when the results aren’t immediate (partially paraphrased).
Holtby called into question some of his team’s effort after Game 7.
Trotz said it was “too emotional” of a moment to evaluate Ovechkin’s play.
So, while some of the national media types have already set a trap to mock and deride those who suggest the Capitals need a big change, it could be the Capitals themselves who suggest a change. With so many free agents and big money tied up, now would be the time.
The Capitals have five UFA’s including Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, and TJ Oshie. They have six RFA’s including Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Andre Burakovsky. The Caps have 20 million left to make it all work.
It was again the Penguins who drove their dagger through the Capitals heart. In the final analysis, a large factor is simply–the Capitals don’t know how to win. The Penguins do.
And they did. Again.