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It's a Series Now

The Pittsburgh Penguins were in the process of shocking the hockey world when they won the first two games of the Series in Washington. The Capitals were heavily favored entering the series, due to winning the President's Trophy and the Penguins best defenseman, Kris Letang, missing the entire playoffs. However, following game two, fans and media started wondering if the Capitals would not only lose the series, but be swept in the process.

The Capitals were reeling heading into game three. Braden Holtby had been pulled, Nicklas Backstrom called a players only meeting, it seemed that everything was falling apart in Washington. However, the Capitals responded as any good team would and tried to turn the series around in Pittsburgh on Monday night. The Capitals took the road of attempting to physically beat the Penguins. The Capitals have learned that trading chances with Pittsburgh is simply not a winnable strategy. They need to play a puck possession game in the offensive zone and physically overpower Pittsburgh in the neutral zone. It worked in game three.

What we saw was a decrease in scoring chances for both teams. This definitely benefited Braden Holtby. After back-to-back poor games, that had some calling for Holtby to be benched, he responded well in game three. Holding Pittsburgh scoreless for 58 minutes had Holtby looking exactly like the goalkeeper everyone expected him to be. He was Washington's best player and really was the reason they were able to win. Maybe a win like that is what Holtby needs to get back to his Vezina finalist form and keep this series going.

The story of the night was not Holtby getting back on track or even that Washington has closed the gap and made it 2-1. The headline is that Sidney Crosby was injured and will now miss game four with a concussion. Below is the video of Sid's injury, watch and make your own determination on if it was a dirty play.

The first time you see the play, especially if you watched it live, it looks pretty routine. Crosby was making a drive on the net, he got clipped from behind and Niskanen tried to block Crosby from colliding with him. However, I have a lot of problems with this play. First, am I the only one that sees Ovechkin high stick Crosby in the back of the head? If you watch the slow-mo, you see that the high stick was unnecessary and intentional. Rather than hook Crosby and take a penalty, he slaps him on the back of the helmet with his stick and sends Crosby spiraling out of control. Then as Sid is flying toward the corner, Matt Niskanen stops Crosby by cross-checking him to the face. Niskanen easily could have used his arms, or any other part of his body to stop Crosby. Instead he chose the shaft of his stick.

If you are one of the fans sitting back and saying "oh that's just hockey, what did you want him to do?" you are a moron. This is what kills the game. The best player in the world, the face of the game, is cheap shotted twice on the same play in the biggest series of the season for the NHL on national television. Sidney Crosby has now been ruled out for game four due to a concussion. How many fringe fans do you think are planning to watch game four or the rest of this series now knowing they cannot see Crosby play? I'll tell you it is a whole lot less than watched games one through three. Superstars are the league's meal ticket and the biggest draw will now be watching the playoffs from the press box. 24 hours ago the NHL was praying for a McDavid vs. Crosby Stanley Cup final. That ship has most likely sailed.

The series is not over for Pittsburgh, they just need to win two of the next four games. They proved they are more than capable of competing with the Capitals without Crosby last night. However, this team is now in the middle of the playoffs missing the best player in the world, a Norris Trophy worthy defenseman and their starting goalie. It is not just bad for the Penguins, it is bad for the game too.

These next (potentially) four games are going to be an absolute war. I am interested to see if the Penguins will attempt to get revenge for their captain or if Sullivan gets the team to buy-in to the next man up mentality. Between Malkin and Kessel the Penguins definitely have the firepower to keep up with the Capitals on the scoreboard. The question is going to be depth now. Washington can roll three lines with anyone. They have loads of scoring and strength throughout their lineup. The Penguins need to find a way to spread their remaining scorers across three lines to create chances.

My suggestion, reunite the famously successful "HBK" line from last postseason. This will split Malkin and Kessel, so the Capitals cannot focus on stopping one line. The Penguins top three lines should be:
Guentzel - Malkin - Rust
Kessel - Bonino - Hagelin
Hornqvist - Cullen - Kunitz
That is the best way to spread Washington's defensive focus and keep Pittsburgh able to trade chances for 60 minutes. For Washington, I suggest not changing a thing. They dressed seven defensemen in game three and it worked to perfection. This especially came in handy after Niskanen was given a game misconduct. Also, as odd as this may sound for Washington, they need to focus on winning games 2-1 not 6-5. I know they have the firepower to score five goals every night. However, they also have the defensemen and goaltending to play a shutdown-conservative style. It may not be a bad idea to take a page out of John Torterella's book and simply frustrate the Penguins into bad penalties and forced plays. 

It now feels like this is actually going to turn into the series we all expected. A knock down, drag out seven game battle between the two best teams in the NHL. 

This post first appeared on Beyond The Boards, please read the originial post: here

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It's a Series Now


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