The highly-anticipated Eastern Conference Semifinals match-up between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins started off with a bang, as Capitals winger T.J. Oshie scored a hat trick, including the game-winning goal in overtime, to give the Capitals a 4-3 win and a 1-0 series lead.
The first installment of the series was a wide-open game with plenty of chances, several lead changes and a dramatic finish. Though both goalies had been playing extremely well heading into the series, there were several goals each goalie would like to have back. However, that made for thrilling hockey between arguably the two hottest teams in the playoffs.
Andre Burakovsky started the scoring with a first-period tally, cashing in on a juicy rebound left in the paint by Penguins goalie Matt Murray. This was a significant goal for Burakovsky, who played poorly in Washington’s first-round match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers. Though Burakovsky spent the majority of the regular season on the team’s second line, he had a strong game on the team’s third line, playing with Mike Richards and Jason Chimera. That line generated several quality scoring chances throughout the game, and Burakovsky even had a wide-open opportunity in the slot in overtime that he was unable to convert.
Mid-way through the second period, Pittsburgh lit the lamp twice in the span of 0:57, with Ben Lovejoy finishing a 2-on-1 with Nick Bonino at 10:40 and Evgeni Malkin capitalizing on a defensive lapse and a perfect backhanded roof shot at 11:37, his eighth point in five games so far this postseason.
This was a crucial moment in the game, with the Penguins taking control of the momentum and certainly taking some wind out of the crowd.
However, the man of the night stepped in just 33 seconds later, tying the game at 2-2 with a beautiful top-shelf wrist shot on a partial breakaway. This was the first of Oshie’s three goals on the night.
The Capitals took a 3-2 lead in the third period when Oshie scored his second of the night, a weak backhand off an Ovechkin feed that somehow slipped under the pads of Murray. Bonino tied the game at 8:42, with assists from Carl Hagelin (his second of the night) and Phil Kessel. Bonino’s shot deflected off a Capitals defenseman and beat Holtby short-side.
Despite several prime scoring opportunities, the score remained tied at 3-3. The Capitals were outshot 30-12 in the second and third periods, but Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby made the necessary saves to keep them in the game and force overtime, the first overtime action for either team in the 2016 playoffs.
The Capitals were the stronger team in overtime, though both teams had their chances. Eventually, T.J. Oshie finished what he started, scoring the game-winning goal on a wrap-around shot to complete the hat trick. Though the goal would be reviewed, the call on the ice was confirmed that the puck completely crossed the goal line. Oshie received a little help from Murray, who essentially pushed the puck into his own net. However, Oshie capped off an impressive performance to give the Capitals a 1-0 series lead.
The offseason acquisition of Oshie was meant to add some skill and creativity to the team’s top-six group of forwards, as well as finally give Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom a legitimate linemate. Oshie hadn’t performed well in the playoffs with the St. Louis Blues, who had failed to reach the second round of the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. The hope was that a change of scenery would afford Oshie a fresh start in the playoffs, as he had scored only nine points in 37 career playoff games with the Blues. However, he now leads the Capitals in goals (4) and is tied with Backstrom for the most points (7) through seven playoff games. He certainly demonstrated his value in spades Thursday night with the hat trick and game-winner in OT.
“I haven’t won too many championships in my lifetime,” Oshie said following the game. “Maybe through the youth years. That’s kind of the stuff you dream about when you’re a kid playing in the backyard by yourself is scoring the OT winner and getting a hat trick. It was awesome.”
Although much has been made about the re-match between rivaled superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin had a much stronger performance in Game 1, despite failing to capitalize on two breakaways. Ovi finished the game with an assist, a plus-three rating, four shots and seven hits in 25:01 of ice time. Crosby, on the other hand, finished with a minus-three rating, one shot and one block in 22:51 of ice time.
Crosby was positive about his team’s effort, however.
“I thought we did a pretty good job, generated some pretty good chances,” Crosby said. “Had a bit of a slow start, but once we settled in, I thought we had some good looks and it was a fast-paced game back and forth, and typical of a game this time of year.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also came away with a positive message and attitude for his club, who outshot the Capitals 45-35.
“This game could have went either way,” Sullivan said. “It was an even game. Our guys played hard. I thought we carried stretches of momentum for long periods of time. It didn’t go our way. We’ll learn from it, put it behind us and try to get Game 2.”
This is the first playoff showdown between these two teams since 2009; after defeating the Capitals in seven games, the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. Three of the games in that series were decided in overtime. That being said, both teams have undergone significant changes over the past seven seasons. In fact, both teams have changed dramatically within the past few seasons alone, especially due to coaching changes. The Capitals’ entire system has changed since the hiring of Barry Trotz, including the play of Alexander Ovechkin, who has become a complete 200-foot player since Trotz’s arrival. The Capitals signed Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, both former Penguins, after Trotz was hired, and the team acquired Oshie and Justin Williams in the offseason to strengthen the team’s top-six punch.
Meanwhile, the Penguins have changed considerably since the firing of Mike Johnson and the subsequent hiring of Sullivan in December. Sullivan completely turned the season around for Sidney Crosby, who got off to the worst start of his career; the same is true of Kris Letang, who has not only become a more responsible two-way defenseman but has also seen a boost in his production in Sullivan’s new system. The Penguins are now a much faster team thanks to Sullivan’s call-ups of several players he worked with on the team’s AHL affiliate, including Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, as well as the mid-season acquisition of speedy left-winger Carl Hagelin. An injury to Malkin during the season gave Bonino a chance to play top-six minutes; Bonino had so much success with Hagelin and Phil Kessel that that line is still together even now that Malkin has returned to the lineup.
These teams meet again for Game 2 on Saturday night at 8:00pm EST.
Featured Image Credit: Patrick McDermott-NHLI via Getty Images