Having faced some adversity and their own mortality in a fickle sport that does not always see the best team win, the Washington Capitals enter the second round of the 2016 NHL playoffs a little more aware of just how tough their quest for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup will be.
For the Presidents’ Trophy winners, who so many expected to cruise to the conference final, a wake-up call of sorts may be just what they needed.
The Capitals advanced with a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of their first-round series, finally finishing off the Flyers after dropping two straight games in regulation against the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed—something the Caps didn’t do through all 82 games of the regular season.
After picking up three straight wins to start the playoffs, the Caps were smothered by a dialed-in goaltender in Michael Neuvirth, who put together a shutout streak of more than 106 minutes and stopped 72 straight shots to help put the outcome of the seven-game series in doubt for the first time.
Neuvirth nearly single-handedly forced a Game 7 to decide it all, putting together a 28-save performance on Sunday afternoon. Only one perfectly placed puck got past him despite plenty of opportunities for the Caps, as the Flyers spent significant time in the penalty box.
One of those penalties had just expired when Alex Ovechkin made a play at the blue line to keep the puck in play, dishing it off to Marcus Johansson, who then fed Nicklas Backstrom inside the faceoff circle.
Backstrom snapped it top shelf past the sprawling Neuvirth, just over the glove, to finally shatter the shutout streak.
But it didn’t guarantee victory. The Flyers put up a fight, and Braden Holtby—whose own spectacular goaltending in the series took a back seat to that of Neuvirth—had to be solid at the other end of the ice in the last half of the game as the Caps clung to the lead.
“We’re happy with the way we were playing, but when you run into a guy like [Neuvirth], the way he was playing, you know you’re going to have to be close to perfect. We were tonight, and he still almost won it for them,” Holtby told the CBC’s Scott Oake on the ice after the game. “Amazing series by him. We’re happy to be moving on.”
How many more times they move on this spring depends on how much they’ve learned from the adversity in the first round.
For all the depth and skill the Capitals boast on paper, they have yet to develop that killer instinct Stanley Cup champions display. The team that started with unlimited confidence and poise had to fight off a feeling of panic, thanks in part to an awful history in series-clinching contests, going 1-9 in its previous 10 in the playoffs.
Washington only allowed six goals in the series but relied heavily on its power play early on, scoring eight times on the man advantage and just six times at even strength. The Flyers hung with the Capitals in five-on-five hockey the whole series.
It only gets more difficult from here.
The Pittsburgh Penguins await them in the next round, which will start in a few days.
Their biggest rival beat the Caps in the regular-season series, claiming three of the five head-to-head battles, including one in overtime. For every superstar the Capitals put on the ice, the Penguins have an answer. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel headline a group that had plenty of support from the second and third lines and beat the New York Rangers handily in the opening round.
Ovechkin did his best to downplay the Crosby vs. Ovechkin angle while talking to Oake on the broadcast after the game, saying the Capitals have to play their game and avoid worrying about the team they’re up against or the names on their backs.
“We’re going to play hard, we’re going to play physical and we’re going play our game,” said the Caps captain.
They’ll need to. Anything less than what they did against the Flyers could end in failure.
Roberto Luongo Deserved Better as John Tavares Sinks the Panthers
Only one of them was going to come away victorious. The New York Islanders’ John Tavares or Florida Panthers’ Roberto Luongo.
Game 6 turned out to be a battle of wills between the teams’ best individual players, both looking to give their franchise its first playoff series win in decades. Tavares came out on top, scoring in the last minute of regulation to tie it and then dominating overtime before scoring on an individual effort in double overtime to give the Islanders a 2-1 win in the game and 4-2 series victory—the Islanders’ first playoff series win in 23 years.
Luongo was trying to do the same for the Panthers, who haven’t won a round since 1996, but he looked like a battered heavyweight by the time Tavares picked up his own rebound at high speed and scored the winner on a wraparound at the 10:41 mark of the fifth period.
The series schedule didn’t favor the 37-year-old Panthers goaltender. It started with games on back-to-back nights, and then the third game in four days went to overtime. Two nights before the pivotal Game 6 finale, they went to double overtime for the first time.
So when Luongo lost track of the puck in the final minute of regulation and Tavares scooped it up and tied the game at 1-1, even some Isles fans probably felt pity for the veteran backstop.
He deserved a better fate.
Luongo, though, wasn’t the only one to think the play was over before Tavares jumped on the gift in the dying seconds of the third period. And in fairness, the Panthers should have been able to end it with an empty-net goal with a minute left to play but were twice tripped up—first Vincent Trocheck, then Reilly Smith—before Nick Leddy dragged the puck up ice and centered it for Nikolay Kulemin.
Luongo thought he had it covered, but the puck was exposed at his side and only Tavares seemed to realize it.
Tavares took over the game from there, leading the charge as the Isles pelted Luongo with another 15 shots in the first overtime period and four more in the second.
While Luongo looked gassed and labored to get across his crease in time to prevent Tavares’ game-winner, the Isles captain looked like a gazelle as he bounced around the net doing his best Patrick Kane impression to give the Isles fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn a reason to celebrate.
“It feels pretty good. I know our fans have waited a long time for this,” Isles winger Kyle Okposo said on the CBC broadcast. “We fought and battled all night and Johnny came up huge–scored a couple of huge goals for us. Really excited to do it in our building.”
Tavares looks like he’s just getting started. He was the Isles' MVP in the first round, scoring five goals and nine points through the six games and averaging five shots on goal per game.
With another performance like that in the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he could be guiding the Isles into the Eastern Conference Final.
Victorious Stars Will Go as Far as Jamie Benn Takes Them
With a three-point afternoon, Jamie Benn gave himself a lead in the playoff scoring race with just a couple of games left to play in the first round. The Dallas Stars captain was the leader of the best regular-season offense and is again their man in the postseason.
Thanks in part to Benn’s big performance on Sunday, the Stars were able to scrape past the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 with a 5-4 victory to move on to the Western Conference Semifinal against the winner of the series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
But the Stars will only go as far in these playoffs as their biggest star can carry them.
Unlike the Washington Capitals, Blues, Blackhawks and the majority of the teams likely to join them in the second round, the Stars have unreliable goaltending, and the defense is questionable as well.
There is a great deal of pressure heaped on Benn’s broad shoulders to produce, especially with partner in crime Tyler Seguin sidelined indefinitely.
The Stars finished the season with the worst goals-against average of any playoff team, 19th in the NHL at 2.78. Although they brought in Kris Russell at the trade deadline to help with the depth on the blue line, the team often looks disorganized and panicked when it doesn’t have the puck.
Just look at the mess on the Wild’s fourth goal of the night, when Russell blocked a shot with his lid and Jason Pominville pounded it into an empty cage.
Or what might have been the equalizer, when netminder Kari Lehtonen inexplicably swept the puck directly across his crease onto Jason Zucker’s stick, only to see him whiff on the backhand and never gain control.
Or the scramble in the final minute, when the NHL had to review tape to see if the puck crossed the line.
Fortunately for the Stars, they were able to cling to that lead and escape with the series. They watched a 4-0 lead (on goals by John Klingberg, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Benn) turn into a 4-3 lead when the Wild responded with tallies from defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin just 16 seconds apart early in the third and then a second from Spurgeon at 8:39.
A blooper that Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk put into his own net gave the Stars a two-goal lead again, but Pominville’s fourth of the series made the last five minutes heart-stopping thanks to the combination of desperation from the hosts and awful play by the Stars.
“I don’t think you can make it any harder on yourselves than the Dallas Stars have this afternoon,” said NBC commentator Pierre McGuire on the broadcast as time ticked away late in the game.
Sharp called it a learning experience when talking to McGuire at ice level.
“It’s a lesson for us. We won a playoff series. Let’s get excited about it. We’re moving on,” he said. “We’ll learn from this. It’s only going to get harder as you move on.”
That last sentence is probably an understatement when you consider the quality of opponent that they will wait for.
Benn, however, is the kind of leader who can make the Stars a contender in spite of their flaws.
He has eight goals and seven assists in 12 career playoff games, including at least a point in all six this year, and seems to be getting better by the game.
He’ll have to take another step forward for the Stars to get into the conference final.
Maybe even play some goal.
Check back here later today for more insight and analysis from Sunday's NHL playoff games.