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Jakub Vrana came to the rink expecting to play on the Capitals‘ third line again. He left as a top-liner on top of the world.
Vrana made the most of his promotion to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov [url=http://www.lionscheapstore.com/frank-ragnow-jersey-cheap]Frank Ragnow Lions Jersey[/url] , setting up the tying goal and scoring the Game 5 winner as Washington beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 Saturday night to take a 3-2 lead in the second-round series and put the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions on the brink of elimination.
After replacing an ineffective Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line, the 22-year-old rookie sprung Kuznetsov on the breakaway that tied the score early in the third period and took a pass from Ovechkin and scored the go-ahead goal with 4:38 left to send a fired-up crowd into a frenzy. Vrana made Barry Trotz look like a genius for bumping him up the lineup but wasn’t expecting to be his coach’s plan B.
”That’s just how the game rolls,” said Vrana, who also assisted on Brett Connolly’s first-period goal to give him three points. ”Sometimes you’re gonna make changes. Today we did. We were all ready. I felt comfortable out there. Ready for next game.”
That next game, Monday night in Pittsburgh, is the Capitals’ chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era and for the first time overall since 1998 when they lost in the Cup Final. They may have to do it without star center Nicklas Backstrom, who left in the third period with an upper-body injury that Trotz said the team will have more information on Sunday.
With Backstrom unable to play the final 13 minutes, Lars Eller double-shifted and Vrana looked like a perfect fit with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. The Capitals are on the verge of beating Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins for the first time in four playoff series dating to 2009 on the strength of top-end scoring and goaltending from Braden Holtby, who stopped 36 of the 39 shots he faced.
”Obviously Holts right now playing unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. ”He’s a big wall over there. When he play like that, it give us confidence.”
Confidence isn’t lacking on either side. The Capitals hope they can build off an emotional victory, and the Penguins will try to win their fourth consecutive Game 6 after falling behind 3-2 in a series.
”Your desperation level is a little higher [url=www.chicagobearsteamonline.com/walter-payton-jersey]Walter Payton Bears Jersey[/url] ,” said Crosby, who scored his ninth goal of the playoffs. ”You’re aware of the situation, and that brings out the best in everybody. We knew it was going to be a tight series. We need to make sure we leave it all out there, give ourselves a chance to get back here.”
The Capitals ensured at least one more home game this postseason with goals by John Carlson and Connolly 33 seconds apart in the first period and a rebound effort in the third after being outshot 18-5 in the second. Pittsburgh got goals from Jamie Oleksiak at even strength and Crosby and Patric Hornqvist on the power play, often hanging goalie Matt Murray out to dry as he allowed four on 30 shots.
Kuznetsov’s goal brought out his bird-flapping celebration and awakened a crowd that booed the Capitals at the end of the second period. Vrana’s goal was followed by deafening chants of ”Lets’ Go Caps!” at the next timeout, among the loudest in the building over Washington’s decade-long run of contention.
”Tonight was one of those games where we needed to earn it from our fans,” Holtby said. ”They probably think `Here we go again’ and we’re not thinking that. We’re thinking we’re pushing forward, we’re focusing on the moment and hopefully we gave them belief with that third period because this group in here believes in ourselves.”
NOTES: T.J. Oshie and Eller each scored an empty-netter in the final minutes to ice it. … Trotz said Carlson was being evaluated after taking a high hit from Jake Guentzel late in the third period. … The goals 33 seconds apart by Carlson and Connolly were the second-fastest in Capitals playoff history behind Craig Laughlin and Dave Christian (32 seconds) in 1984. … Crosby took sole possession of second place on the Penguins’ all-time playoff goals list with his 66th, breaking a tie with Jaromir Jagr. Crosby is 10 shy of Mario Lemieux for the most in franchise history. … Carlson is 36th defenseman in history and third active with 10-plus power-play points in the playoffs. No defenseman has reached 11 power-play points in the postseason since Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Gonchar in 2009.
Sidney Crosby saw Jakub Voracek’s glove on the ice and wasn’t going to let his opponent pick it up easily.
Crosby pushed the glove away with his stick and reignited a melee in a good, old-fashioned Pittsburgh-Philadelphia playoff game that featured three fights, way more scrums and 158 penalty minutes. When Crosby was asked afterward why he did it, the Penguins captain responded: ”I don’t like them. I don’t like any guy on their team.”
Those were the days.
”It was awesome,” then-Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. ”If you look at it [url=http://www.newyorkgiantsteamonline.com/eli-manning-jersey]http://www.newyorkgiantsteamonline.com/eli-manning-jersey[/url] , it was wild. It really was. You had villains on both sides and people that hated each other.”
That was six years ago. Is a rivalry still a rivalry in a league that has made a concerted effort against over-the-top hits and where fighting is truly a rare sight?
NHL executive Colin Campbell once famously said the league sells hate, and at no time is hate more widely bought, sold, distributed and celebrated than during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The NHL’s divisional playoff format was brought back specifically to ignite old rivalries and create new ones, which has been a successful venture even if hate looks different than it did in the days of the ”Broad Street Bullies.” Playoff rivalries are no longer about dropping the gloves or laying out bone-crushing hits.
Teams now play fewer regular-season games against each other and are made up of more skilled players and fewer enforcers. Still, thanks to how tight the league is and the volcanic snowball effect of what a playoff series does to hockey players and coaches, rivalries might have a different look but they have plenty of smoldering intensity.
”Playing against teams with high stakes when there’s a lot on the line – win or go home – that’s how you have rivalries,” veteran New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle said. ”When it’s us or it’s them, that’s how you find those rivalries. The same guys for two weeks, I think that’s how you build them.”
The first round in the Eastern Conference this year already has two old-school rivalries with the Penguins and Flyers meeting in the playoffs for the first time since their epic 2012 showdown, and Boston facing Toronto for the first time since 2013. In the West, Minnesota faces Winnipeg in the first playoff series between the two division rivals, which could heat up fast.
”The best thing about most of them are is the proximity to where they live [url=http://www.sanjosesharksteamshop.com/authentic-evander-kane-jersey]Authentic Evander Kane Jersey[/url] , the close ones, but I think it needs a good playoff (series) against that individual team to create the rivalry full hand,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”Until you play seven games in 14 nights where you learn to hate the opposition.”
Playoff series in back-to-back years made the Penguins and Washington dislike each other plenty, and they’d meet again in the second round if they advance this year. Nashville and Anaheim developed a nontraditional rivalry with intense series the past two playoffs, making that a potentially combustible Western Conference final.
When Predators players think about those Ducks series and other tense ones over the past several years, they know there haven’t been a lot of fights – and they’re not alone. The past four playoffs have included a total of 39 fights. There were 46 fights in the 1978 postseason alone and an incredible 85 in the 1988 playoffs.
”You get the odd scrum that turns into a fight and stuff like that, but there’s not too much fighting left,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. ”You probably see the amount of blocked shots go up in the playoffs, the amount of hits – the little things that may not be on the stat sheet is kind of what I guess gets your team through the playoffs. It’s just little things like that that really is the playoff intensity.”
Boyle, who has blocked 113 shots in 106 career playoff games, has seen more fights in blowout games deep into a series than at other times because there’s too much at stake to take a retaliatory penalty.
”A lot of times you see a lot of other guys turn the other cheek in a playoff series,” Boyle said. ”You don’t want something like that to make a difference in a series.”
Making a difference is more about scoring a big goal than leveling a big hit or punching someone in the face. Look at the Penguins’ and Flyers’ rosters now and the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin [url=http://www.pantherscheapstore.com/dj-moore-jersey-cheap]DJ Moore Jersey[/url] , Phil Kessel, Voracek and Claude Giroux are far more likely to beat someone with a slick shot than their fists.
”I think the game has changed in how it’s being played out there,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. ”I think personnel has changed. But I think rivalries are rivalries. There’s always a heightened emotion associated with the games.”
So much so that retired player and former Penguins coach Ed Olczyk said of Penguins-Flyers, ”It only takes one player, one comment from somebody, where all bets are off and that gasoline tank will be ignited fairly quickly.” Crosby recalls more fights between the teams in the past – he was involved in two six years ago in the game he swatted Voracek’s glove away – but doesn’t want to downplay the intensity of this rivalry.
”You never know what can happen,” Crosby said. ”I feel like both teams are always kind of at their best, and there’s always a little bit extra in those games.”
Capitals defenseman John Carlson said he thinks playoff rivalries have gotten worse more because of what players can get away with, the physical toll ga.
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