Washington Capitals

Oshie gets it done for Caps but Kuznetsov must improve

(Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

If you watched NBCSN’s pregame show ahead of this evening’s second-round contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, you would have been lead to believe that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin would be the biggest difference makers for their respective teams in Game 1. And while the latter was active and had several good opportunities, Game 1 of this semifinal was defined by players who weren’t wearing No. 87 and No. 8.

T.J. Oshie capped off a hat trick in overtime to seal a victory for a Capitals team that was largely outchanced at five-on-five play during the second and third periods. Washington managed to tighten things up in OT, and the former St. Louis Blue cashed in on what he referred to after the contest as an “opportunistic” chance.

It’s a goal that was somewhat like the one that John Tavares scored to close out the Florida Panthers in Game 6 just a few nights ago. Oshie ran out of space to drive to the net, so he used his long reach to swing around behind the cage where he was able to beat Matt Murray’s lateral push to the far-side post. It took a review to confirm that the puck had crossed the line, but eventually that determination was made.

In five seasons worth of playoff games for the Blues, Oshie never managed to score more than two goals in an entire run. In Game 1 he found the back of the net three times, and more importantly, he did exactly what the Capitals acquired him to do. Which is create chances with his speed, push defenders off of the blue line and create some breathing room for Ovechkin.

In playoff years gone by, a quiet night from him and Nicklas Backstrom on the score sheet could have spelled doom for the Capitals. While the trio created some excellent chances, it was Oshie who was able to capitalize on his looks.

St. Louis opted to trade the veteran due to his playoff struggles. He showed his “clutch” gene off in Sochi–we won’t belabor that moment, and you’re welcome–but never really showed the same flair for the dramatic with the Blues. The organization decided to shake some things up last summer, and the Capitals wisely came calling with Pheonix Copley, Troy Brouwer and a third-round pick in the 2016 draft. It’s a trade that has worked out for both squads so far, but Oshie certainly carried his weight in Game 1.

They weren’t perfect, however. The unit of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie were outchanced at 5-on-5 play by Pittsburgh’s trio of Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary. That didn’t matter in this particular contest, but Washington’s forwards will need to do a better job of keeping up with the Penguins in general.

One player who had a particularly tough outing was Evgeny Kuznetsov. Ahead of this series we identified his matchup with Evgeni Malkin as the top storyline to watch (that had nothing to do with Ovechkin and Crosby) in this series, and his struggles could have cost the Capitals this game. While he didn’t make any Dmitry Orlov-level mistakes–and didn’t go directly head-to-head with “Geno” that often–Washington got steamrolled whenever his line was out on the ice.

That second line took a beating at 5-on-5 overall. Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel dominated play and badly outshot their second-line counterparts. This is something that the Capitals should be concerned with despite having a 1-0 series lead. Mostly because if Barry Trotz decides to get Kuznetsov away from the Bonino line, he’ll essentially be feeding him directly to Malkin.

Don’t expect too many changes from the Penguins heading into Game 2. Game 1 could have gone either way and Pittsburgh came quite close to stealing one on the road to open the series. Instead they’ll hit the ice on Saturday night knowing they carried large chunks of play in the opening contest and they’ll try to do exactly what they did in the second and third periods of Game 1.

For the Capitals, they got what they needed from their top line, but someone besides Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie will need to get going if they want to avoid heading back to Pittsburgh with a tied series.

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