Wednesday after the morning skate, it was first reported by NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti that veteran defenseman Mike Weber would get a sweater for Game Four. Barry Trotz is benching Nate Schmidt, the man who had a bad turnover which directly led to the Penguins’ game-winning goal Monday.
Hi, my name is Ian Oland. I’m driving this here Capitals bandwagon. Over the last month, we’ve traveled all over the continent, picking up many new friends. In fact, there are so many strangers here, we’ve had to put on name-tags and start force-feeding IVs to our exhausted oxen via beer guzzlers. But we must carry on.
Our first new member is someone we’ve known a while. Over the last five decades, he’s walked near the bandwagon and sometimes he’s even come up and whimsically touched the side. But this year he finally jumped on.
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.
With Kris Letang suspended and Bryan Rust injured, the Pittsburgh Penguins have reached into the farm to fill their defensive ranks. Up comes Tom Sestito, veteran of 141 NHL games over an eight-year career, and former Capitals prospect Steve Oleksy.
Oleksy played 62 regular-season swag-filled games for the Capitals between 2013 and 2015, scoring 3 goals and 16 assists. In 2013, he added playoff games, his only postseason experience. In the summer of 2015, Oleksy was signed by the Penguins but has yet to suit up for a game.
Oleksy is a surprisingly strong depth defenseman. Relative to the rest of the 2013 Capitals, Oleksy had a positive possession swing of 1.88 percent. Sestito, on the other hand, has been a garbage fire, depressing possession by more than 8 percent in 140 NHL games for 4 different teams.
As much as I love Oleksy, I’d rather see Sestito get the sweater.
Photo: Justin K. Aller
It was the best of games, it was the worst of games. Okay, maybe that was forced, but it still holds true. Game Three began with a grope, but ended with a 3-2 loss on enemy ice. The Caps absolutely outplayed the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Monday night, but still walked away down 2-1 in the series.
Even so, there are positives to pull from the game. It was the first match of the series that the Caps unquestionably controlled the play against the Penguins. The Capitals probably never expected to come into Pittsburgh and take both games, so while it makes Game Four on Wednesday all the more important, it is not a backbreaker either.
The Caps are rightfully feeling pretty good about their current play going into Game Four. This was a game of bounces. The Pens got them. The Caps didn’t.
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.
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.”
Monday morning, Barry Trotz put on a figurative tinfoil hat and said one of the most wacky things he’s ever said as Caps coach. Frustrated by the length of Brooks Orpik’s three-game suspension, Trotz suggested the NHL favors the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised based on who we’re playing and all that,” Trotz said.
Later when asked to clarify, Trotz replied, “Take it for whatever you want.”
I, a rational human being, do not believe the NHL favors one team over another. But the problem is the optics. And the main provider of said optics is NBC, the NHL’s American TV partner.
Over the years, NBC’s analysis during intermission can basically be summed up like this: yell first, think later. Whether it’s Jeremy Roenick calling Alex Ovechkin a bad defensive player due to plus-minus or Keith Jones pushing tired narratives, NBC’s hockey analysis can seem more about settling scores than communicating constructive information. (It’s basically the opposite of CSN Mid-Atlantic’s coverage of Caps games.)
Mike Milbury, whose personality wavers from patient to cranky night to night, is the kingpin. During the first intermission of Game Two, Grumpy Milbury launched into an angry screed about Brooks Orpik’s headshot on Olli Maatta. The Orpik hit was bad, don’t get me wrong, but Milbury’s analysis still somehow managed to be over-the-top.
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.