Hard Hits: Ovechkin and Caps silencing critics

Through three games of the most unpredictable Stanley Cup Final, it’s Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps needing just two more wins to capture the franchise’s first Cup. In a virtuoso performance following a bizarre introduction from game show host Pat Sajac, Ovechkin scored his team’s first goal in a 3-1 home win in Game Three over the Golden Knights to take a two games to one series lead.

As has been the case throughout this postseason, the Great Eight has continued to play at another level. In continuing to lead his team by playing excellent two-way hockey that’s included sacrificing his body for the cause to block one of 26 Vegas shots, Ovechkin is proving the critics wrong. As if the greatest goalscorer of this generation and second best player behind Sidney Crosby, was to blame for previous Washington failures. He always produced but wasn’t as complete. That’s the difference with every skater on the Caps along with the laser focus of Braden Holtby.

What they lacked before was the grit and determination along with the tenacity to get it done. Now, they’re more resilient winning the one on one battles. They play much tougher defensively which makes games like Saturday night’s ugly for the viewers but beautiful for long suffering Caps fans. It might not be a pretty style of hockey under coach Barry Trotz. But unlike 2015, ’16 and ’17, they’ve persevered to the point where they can taste it.

While Ovechkin has been front and center scoring timely goals in the last two games which are both wins, the supporting cast has continued to play their roles as perfectly. In Game Two, they held off a Golden Knights’ strong third period to pull out a hard fought 3-2 victory to square the series. They did it without star center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who missed most of the last two periods due to an upper body injury he sustained on a clean, heavy hit. Lars Eller was instrumental in the victory with a goal and two assists while dominating on faceoffs. His primary helper on a Ovechkin power play goal broke a 1-1 tie. He also helped set up unlikely hero Brooks Orpik’s game-winner.

In the playoffs, it’s not always the stars who help you win. It’s guys like André Burakovsky, who sprung to life in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final with two goals to help the Caps shutout the Lightning. Burakovsky was benched in the same series. He had two helpers in Game Two. Without guys like Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly, the Caps wouldn’t be where they are. Even with Kuznetsov returning to play last night and score a huge goal to convert a three-on-one rush, Smith-Pelly stepped up with his fifth of the tournament. A big insurance marker that restored a two-goal lead in the third after a rare Holtby misplay had given Tomas Nosek an easy goal. Jay Beagle recorded two assists while centering the fourth line that had Smith-Pelly and hustling rookie Chandler Stephenson on it.

On a night the second scoring unit of Nick Backstrom, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie were quiet, it was the vaunted top line with Kuznetsov (goal/assist), Ovechkin (franchise tying 14th goal) and pest Tom Wilson (5 hits, big recovery that led to Ovechkin goal) that set the tone. They easily could’ve had more than two of the three Washington goals. Marc-André Fleury was spectacular throughout making big saves that gave Vegas a chance. He robbed Ovechkin at least three times including twice with superb glove stops. The score could’ve been more lopsided given how much the Caps dominated territorially.

The Golden Knights didn’t have the puck enough. Turnovers were a theme with some blown assignments leading directly to goals against which Fleury had no chance on. It was a credit to how thorough the Caps checked. They gave their opponent nothing by blanketing the neutral zone and making a cocoon around Holtby. This led to plenty of missed opportunities. Forty of the Knights’ 62 attempts never reached the Washington net. Twenty-six were blocked while another 14 missed the net completely.

A tighter checking game has favored the detail oriented Caps, who have won both low scoring contests since the wild and crazy Game One that featured 10 goals and a Stanley Cup record four lead changes. They shutdown the Knights’ top line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. They also exposed the Vegas second line turning James Neal, Erik Haula and David Perron into a combined minus-nine. They were victimized on all three goals. Perhaps that’ll result in Vegas coach Gerard Gallant adjusting that line along with a couple of personnel changes. Something he hasn’t shied away from all season. Figure either Tomas Tatar or Oscar Lindberg to be back in for a crucial Game Four tomorrow night.

As far as Holtby, he’s on a good roll. Following a shaky Game One in which he allowed five goals on 33 shots, he’s given up just three on 61 shots. His defense has been better at protecting the net and swarming Vegas skaters. But he’s also been much sharper, bringing back his old Vezina form. Three goals allowed in the last 128:28 is pretty dominant.

It’s all working for the Caps. Two more wins and they finally reach the mountain top.

Body Checks

-I know it wasn’t the greatest game to watch. Now, I kinda understand what critics of the ’11-12 Rangers were talking about with all the blocked shots. It’s ugly but effective. It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Gallant makes.

-It is absurd that two Stanley Cup games in a row didn’t air on NBC. Especially Saturday night in prime time. Instead, it was on NBCSN. NBC was re-airing a Dateline piece from a year ago in the 8 PM time slot. Genius programming. What a great league partner.

-The amount of clutching and grabbing the sea of red got away with was reminiscent of the pre-lockout days when anything went. So much for having a rulebook on obstruction.

-John Carlson hasn’t hurt himself one bit this postseason. A unrestricted free agent in July, the biggest Caps weapon from the right point will make a lot of money this summer. What better situation is there than the one he’s in? Unless the Devils come calling and sell him on a homecoming featuring Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, he would be nuts to leave.

-Every tweet former pugilist Daniel Carcillo sends out is one of significant interest to fans and current players of the sport. The current lawsuit against the NHL is no laughing matter. Every time Gary Bettman sidesteps the issue of responsibility for the damage caused by head trauma that’s led to struggles off the ice, he comes off like a fraud. He can talk up the good PR of the expansion Golden Knights proving that anyone can make a run and build a new fan base. But he’s a jackass when it comes to the seriousness of how the league looked the other way on concussions damaging the brain to the point where CTE could be linked.

-New Islanders Team President Lou Lamoriello is no better. TSN continues to roll out a series of damaging articles on former players such as ex-Devil Mike Peluso, who played through concussions due to expectations. The league was a lot different in the 90’s and even 00’s. There was a lot more fighting. These guys put themselves at risk not knowing the severity of the damage blows to the head along with landing on the ice could cause. Nobody knew except Eric Lindros, who was right about how poorly the Flyers and Bobby Clarke handled him. Concussion protocol probably wouldn’t be around if not for former NHLPA leader Lindros.

-For old school executives in Lou’s class to not acknowledge it smacks of arrogance. He always talks about putting the team first. The logo in the front of the jersey over the name on the back. That’s all well and good. But what about caring for the players? I guess that didn’t matter. Winning at all costs.

-Per Doc Emrick, 13 remaining Caps were drafted by former GM and current Vegas one George McPhee. So, if his old team wins, he’ll have a lot to do with it. I’m sure that’s not what he’s thinking at the moment.

-When Emrick disagrees with a missed call, he lets the audience know about it. During a sequence in which he thought there was a penalty, he said, “Play continues.” Then when expecting an icing that never came, he quipped: “Why would it be?”

More reasons to love Doc.

-So many experts on what the Rangers should do including the captaincy. I don’t think they have a captain on the current roster. Mats Zuccarello enters his final year if he’s not dealt. Chris Kreider could be a good leader but isn’t ready for that kind of responsibility yet. Why not enter ’17-18 without a captain? They did it before in ’05-06 following the lockout under Tom Renney. It worked out well. Of course, they had Jaromir Jagr and savvy vets Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Michael Nylander and Steve Rucchin. As Vegas has proven, you don’t have to name a captain.

-The Lamoriello hiring for the Islanders was a no brainer. Even at 75, he’s a fine executive who still has a healthy appetite to want to clean up the mess in Brooklyn and soon Long Island. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. What happens if John Tavares still leaves?

-Things I hate:

-the mini advertisements before play following a icing or offside.

-Pierre McGuire waxing poetic on another fourth liner. It doesn’t matter what year it is. It’s a team game. But fourth liners shouldn’t have this much impact. If they do, why didn’t Jed Ortmeyer win a Cup? How about Dominic Moore or Brian Boyle? They’re all guys I like. But at what point does it become ridiculous? Then you wonder why teams overpay these guys. For the same reason unheralded defensive defensemen get ridiculous contracts.

-The league talks up the talent and it’s true. But then you watch these games and there’s little room to make a play or take a shot. Even with all the rule adjustments, it’s a drag. Goalies have too much equipment. So do players. Particularly shoulder pads that can do damage on big hits. Plus the substandard officiating which frustrates benches and viewers while confusing broadcasts.

-So, Larry Brooks will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions as a writer. When asked about it, favorite target John Tortorella had ‘no comment.’ I wonder what Dan Boyle thinks about this. It’s funny that Brooksie stuck. Tort’s old nickname for Brooks. Will he mention Torts in November?

-Brooks used to be a fun read for his Slap Shots column in the New York Post. But he’s so negative about everything that I am not sure he should keep covering the sport. I admit to similar frustration with the league. But if I can see how great a story Vegas is, why can’t Larry? Because he can be a stick in the mud. The show in Vegas is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. While some critique the Medieval Times act, I enjoy it for what it is. Entertainment in a sport that takes itself too seriously. When you have NBC talent gushing over it and using Jeremy Roenick in all sorts of chaotic roles engaging the fans, they know it’s funny. Why can’t hockey fans laugh? We are sometimes our own worst enemies.

-I guess Pat Sajak won’t be introducing the Nationals lineup in October.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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