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Heading into Game Five, we had heard plenty of “Murray! Murray!” chants from the home crowd in Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie netminder Matt Murray, 21, has stolen the show, stopping 81 of 85 shots in his last two games. He has relegated franchise netminder Marc-Andre Flurey, currently signed to a four-year, $23 million contract, to backup duty. Murray’s numbers are brilliant, with a 6-2 record, 2.00 goals-against average, and a .930 save percentage in the postseason.

But on Saturday night, it was Braden Holtby’s time to reclaim the spotlight. Holtby, a near lock to win the Vezina Trophy for goalie of the year, stopped 30 of 31 Pittsburgh shots in the elimination game. His heroics kept Washington’s season alive. Now the series shifts to Pittsburgh with the Capitals down 3-2. Without Holtby, Washington may have been packing up their sticks at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Monday.

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Photos by Chris Gordon.

Ryan Ellis rarely misses a Capitals game. A former college hockey player, the Ashburn native is a diehard fan. But as the Caps closed out the Flyers in Game Six of the first round, Ellis wasn’t watching, or even tracking, the game. Instead, he was making his second career start in the top-tier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at his home track at Richmond International Raceway.

“That’s the track I grew up watching Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt race at as a little kid and say ‘Oh, it would be cool to sit a little closer next year, not knowing that 15 years later I would driving at it.” Ellis said. “I always wanted to. That’s the only thing you ever think of, but you never really expect to get the chance because you can never expect anything in this sport.”

You would think NASCAR and hockey don’t mix, but they do. NASCAR is a southern sport built on cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated V8s speeding past you at ear-splitting levels. Hockey is a graceful northern game featuring cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated people punching each other in the face. In the stands at Richmond, as Ellis raced in the Toyota Owners 400, there were dozens of people in Capitals gear to be found, including some in full jerseys.

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Tuesday afternoon, the NHL announced a one-game suspension for Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. The linchpin of Pittsburgh’s blueline delivered a head shot to Capitals forward Marcus Johansson in Washington’s offensive zone during the first period. Letang was given a two-minute minor penalty for interference.

Johansson left the game and returned at the start of the second period, playing over 18 minutes. He passed concussion tests, but complained of neck pain. Tuesday morning, Johansson was held out of practice due what the Capitals termed an upper-body injury.

The Department of Player Safety explains their decision below.

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In the first period of Game Three, Marcus Johansson got elbowed in the head by Kris Letang. The hit, which was not unlike Brook Orpik’s in Game Two, forced a dazed Johansson to retreat to the locker room. Johansson returned for the start of the second period and ended up skating nearly 20 minutes in the game. With suspensions and fines often based on whether or not the player is injured, the league’s Department of Player Safety will undoubtedly soften the blow to Letang because Johansson came back. The Capitals forward said he passed concussion testing but had “a little whiplash.”

“I didn’t see him coming, he came from the blind side,” Johansson said. “I just looked at it, he obviously leaves his feet, and hits me in the head. It’s the kind of play you want out of the league. Doesn’t look good.”

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Photo: Doug Pensinger

The Washington Capitals played their best game of the postseason in Game Three of the Second Round, firing 49 shots at Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. After allowing three unlucky goals, two off deflections and one off a tip-in in the crease, the Capitals pummeled Pittsburgh with 21 shots on goal in the third period, scoring twice and nearly converting on a myriad of scoring chances in the final minutes. After the Capitals mustered just 10 shots through the first 40 minutes of Game Two, Nicklas Backstrom was angry with how his team played. But speaking after Monday’s loss, which put the Capitals down 2-1 in the series, he was far more confident in his team.

“We had more shots tonight than we had last game, so that’s a good thing,” Backstrom said after Game Three. “It’s a seven game series and I think it’s so important that you take something positive even if you lose. I thought we played right.”

The message was the same throughout the Capitals locker room.

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Photo: @WashCaps

For 30 minutes a crowd of reporters and cameramen stood in front of the white board in the Capitals locker room at CONSOL Energy Center. Numerous players entered the room and went to their stalls after Washington’s morning skate on Monday, but the assembled media stayed right where they were, waiting for Brooks Orpik to address the three game suspension levied by the NHL for his late hit to the head on Olli Maatta. Finally, after everyone else was already off the ice, Orpik walked into room, took off his equipment, and walked in front of the lights. While the rest of Capitals defended Orpik or refused to comment earlier, the offender made no excuses.

“I think it was fair,” Orpik said of the punishment given to him by the league’s Department of Player Safety. “It was a bad hit. It was intended to be a hard hit, definitely not at his head, but I don’t think there is anything that you can argue that it was definitely late. I think that was pretty black and white. I said that during my hearing yesterday.”

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Photo: Drew Hallowell

On Sunday night, as Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks played Game Two of their second round series, the NHL turned the attention of hockey world elsewhere, suspending Capitals defensemen Brooks Orpik three games for his high, head-hunting hit on the Penguins’ Olli Maatta on Saturday. The suspension is the third doled out by the league’s Department of Player Safety this postseason. All have been for incidents that occurred in Capitals games, but this was the first suspension levied on Washington. Given the recklessness of the hit, the team knew this was coming.

“I’m sure everyone’s planning for him not to be in the lineup,” Daniel Winnik said at a media availability the team held here in Pittsburgh before the suspension was announced.

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Photo: Drew Hallowell

The Capitals were the league’s best team in the regular season. They ran over their opponents, winning the Presidents’ Trophy by 11 points. Their goal differential was plus-59, powered by deadly power play, a stifling penalty kill, the league’s best goalie, and solid five-on-five play.

In the postseason, however, they’ve often been lucky rather than good, winning their first round series with a major assist from self-inflected wounds by the Philadelphia Flyers. Now the Caps have run into run into the hottest team in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve been outplayed in the first two games of the second round, but head to Pittsburgh with a split series due to an impressive individual performance by TJ Oshie in Game One.

“We have to show more inspiration, especially against this kind of team,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got play better. We’ve got to be more aggressive. We’ve got the shoot the puck more.”

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EricFehrGoal

Photo: Drew Hallowell

Eric Fehr spent nine years with the Washington Capitals. He was twice a hero in the Winter Classic, scoring two goals in 2011’s rain-soaked epic in Pittsburgh and once in Washington’s late third period thriller in 2015. He wanted to stay with the Capitals, knowing they had a chance at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. But the Capitals spent their money elsewhere and Fehr joined the rival Penguins on a three year contract. Now, on a Saturday night in May, he put a dent in the same Washington champion hopes he once held, tipping a puck past Caps goalie Braden Holtby in the third period to break a 1-1 tie in Game Two and send the series back to Pittsburgh on an even footing.

“That one’s right up there,” Fehr said after the game. “To score in the second round like that and get our team a split in this rink I think is pretty special.”

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PowerPlayGameOneRobCarr

Photo: Rob Carr

The Washington Capitals’ power play has operated in the same way for years under a myriad of coaches. It features a 1-3-1 setup. The main weapon is Alex Ovechkin, who scored 19 of his 50 goals on the man-advantage in the regular season. Since 2011, it’s been one of the league’s top five units. Everyone knows what’s coming; they just can’t stop it.

In their first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals power play was key as the team jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, converting on eight of 17 man-advantage opportunities, despite the Capitals often getting outplayed at even strength.

“Our power play is successful because everybody is on the same page, everybody knows what they have to do,” Ovechkin said after Saturday’s morning skate. “If they take me away, Carly’s open or Osh or Willy or Kuzy or Backy. It’s hard to stop. If I have a chance to shoot the puck I will, but I’ll take a guy with me to go to the goal line or something.”

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