On a high-intesity drama scale, the Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals continues to thrill. Game 4 saw a determined Penguins team once again at the mercy of the cruel humor of the Hockey Gods as another weird development put a Caps goal in the net only :36 into the game.
But the Pens seem to like it that way as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury joked carefully afterward that that was the plan. One hates to put too much focus on the stat for trivia enthusiasts that in this series, the team that scores first loses, but that’s how it’s shaped up so far. It’s that kind of self-deprecating humor that keeps the mood light and the guys loose, and then it’s back to business.
In this game it was not a case of dueling hat-tricks between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Instead, it was a checklist of contributions from goals to helpers in a well-balanced effort. Guys like Pens defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Max Talbot all scored goals. Others like Jordan Staal, Miroslav Satan, Chris Kunitz, and defenseman Rob Scuderi assisted to make it all happen.
The jury is still out on the knee-to-knee hit Alex Ovechkin took on Sergei Gonchar that put “Sarge” out of the game. The Penguins are not saying much on the subject–in interviews they said they had only seen the replay of it once, and many of them prefer to leave it up to the league and the refs. As Bill Guerin noted, it’s not up to him. The Capitals, on the other hand, saw it very differently.
In the post-game press conference, a clearly uncomfortable Ovechkin tried to explain it (several times) that the hit was an accident. His coach, Bruce Boudreau, cavalierly and unabashedly stated that if anyone (implying “with a brain”) looked at the tape, they would clearly see that Ovi led with the shoulder, and, in professorial fashion he proceeded with the physics lesson for the “rubes”: where the shoulder goes, the knee will follow. It was a good hit. Still, one would have loved to have been a Russian fly on the wall as Evgeni Malkin’s father was seen in animated conversation with Ovi after the game.
The league and the refs will ultimately decide, but as Jay Caufield from FSN-Pittsburgh pointed out, using the Donald Brashear 6-game suspension for his hit on Blair Betts as an example, it’s got to be consistent.
Taking his argument further, one need only go back to the Philadelphia series when Daniel Carcillo was suspended for a game after hitting Maxime Talbot in the back of the head with the butt end of his stick on a face-off. The Ovechkin hit on Gonchar clearly falls between these two incidents in terms of severity. The hit on Betts caused a concussion and broke occipital bones. The hit on Talbot did not cause injury but was a situation that could have gone badly. In the case of Gonchar, it is not known yet the degree of his injury, but the term ACL has been bandied about.
The Pens were a bit dazed upon that incident, but they played through it and maybe in spite of it–those band of brothers rallied so that Gonch’s loss would not be in vain. Tonight could easily be a carry-over of that spirit because it’s events like that which can galvanize a team, particularly one that seems to be improving and gathering strength with each period of play in this series. Game 4 was crucial and pivotal. The Caps are on their heels, and Varlamov may have spent Friday night sleeplessly replaying his performance on his second loss in a row.
- Coaching–There are many theories floating around about the idea of coaching face-offs. They are hard to accurately emulate in practice, so often, it is not something that is worked on to any major degree. However, Pens coach Dan Bylsma was seen working with Crosby in face-off style scenarios, giving Sid an idea of how to approach an opponent’s stance and positioning. The biggest difference between Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma behind the bench is communication. Bylsma stays engaged with his players individually but not intrusively. One of the most maddening things about Therrien was that during times when he should have been in the ear of players, he was standing back, arms crossed, gazing out over the ice like a first row season ticket-holder. Bylsma has a talent for teaching on multiple levels.
- Face-offs–To piggy back on the previous comment about face-offs, in game 4 it was not always about winning the face-off. In one draw that Evgeni Malkin took, he intentionally deferred the win to his Caps opponent in favor of exploding past him to follow the puck, which he successfully gathered up after some jostling in the corner. This an excellent stratgey, showing once again that there is more than one way (the conventional way) to skin a cat even if it means sacrificing a stat. Whether this was an idea derived from a coach, a player, or both, it shows that these guys are becoming advanced students of the game–they are thinking out of the box and getting positive results.
- Hitting–When the Penguins control puck possession, whether in their defensive end or in the offensive zone, it all starts with physical play. The more Pens who hit a Cap off the puck, the more pucks come into the Pens’ possession. They have proven it time and again. This style of play disrupts the Caps’ flow and makes for tired, frustrated bodies. As soon as the Pens lay off the hits, the Caps come back and reset their speed game.
- Defensive Play–Given the way these guys played for much of the first 3/4 of the season, if anyone said that Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, and Hal Gill would be forces to be reckoned with this year, it would not have been believed. Their often sloppy and lacklustre play during that time was hard to watch, but these guys to a man have dug deep within themselves and found new life–in a huge way. Scuderi and Gill have been tasked with accoutning for Ovechkin, and Game 4’s performance showed that they are equal to the challenge, holding Ovi to only 2 shots in the entire game. To cap it off, Scuderi also figured in the scoring with 2 assists. The 3rd line looked more like themselves, and it is only a matter of time before they get on the scoreboard. Staal chipped in on the Fedotenko goal with some hard jabbing on the boards to break the puck free in the right direction. Marc-Andre proved solid once he got the fluke goal out of the way early in the game.
Keys to Game
It’s simple. Keep the pressure on. keep the hits legal but keep them coming hard and fast. The Caps are starting to hear big steps behind them every time they go to the boards for the puck. Keep up not only the profusion of shots, but follow on for the rebounds. Varlamov is brilliant up to two whacks at the puck, but as the numbers climb to three and four hits at it, he breaks down. Keep drawing strength from each other and take care of individual assignments. Basically, do the things that have translated into success, and do it for 60 minutes.