When the Pittsburgh Penguins watched Nick Bonino tuck a puck in behind a sprawling Braden Holtby, a few things happened at once:
- Holtby laid prone on the ice, face-down in disappointment, for what seemed ages.
- Sidney Crosby, who’s career faced a possible premature end just four years ago, almost fell out of the player’s bench in excitement.
- Matt Murray, whose sample size as a goaltender is still incredibly small, was tackled at center ice by Patric Hornqvist.
- Trevor Daley, the man that could have been anything in a trade that involved Rob Scuderi and been an upgrade, confusedly didn’t know who to hug first. And the list could go on.
The Penguins won, again.
They bested the President’s Trophy winning Capitals, again.
The Capitals choked, again.
Except that last part isn’t quite true.
The way the Capitals have steamrolled to round two of the playoffs, but never made it out alive recently has given them a reputation. A reputation that no one wants. They’re “chokers” and “failures” but that’s not what happened here. To say that does a disservice to both teams and the series the hockey world just witnessed.
There’s a quote out there by Clint Hurdle, where the Pirates’ skipper explains that you can’t win a division early in the season but you can lose it. That’s what happened this season. The Penguins lost their shot at the President’s Trophy and the Metropolitan Division title by muddling through the end of the Johnston era. The Capitals won the Metropolitan so early they barely had to play the last month of the season. They were the best regular season team in the National Hockey League. And that is a tremendous accomplishment.
This series was just what true hockey fans wanted and deserved, save for the unnecessary hits that led to suspensions on both sides. The drama, the scoring, the special teams and the moments. The moments every Stanley Cup Playoffs seem to ooze with ease. Moments that define players’ careers.
The Capitals didn’t choke. No, that statement is vastly unfair to the Penguins. The Penguins simply pushed luck their way. This series was a coin toss going into the round. With the Penguins having a slight advantage, but both teams owning around 50% likelihood to win based on all statistical models.
The Penguins simply had more lines they could depend on against a team that easily matched strong players against the Penguins’ best. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin didn’t put up stellar numbers this round. That’s when having a team where the coach has to ask reporters what line they mean when they mention “the second line” is key. The Penguins never had that in the last few years. The days of Sidney Crosby and his merry men are over.
Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin made the difference. Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust made the difference. The Washington Capitals gave it their absolute best. They left everything on the ice and they did, for long periods of time, look fantastic. That’s when Matt Murray stepped in. Matt Murray, who in 2012 was fascinated by Braden Holtby, just played equal to the likely Vezina Trophy winner.
This series was simply put, the best. No one team dominated the other. No one team just laid over and died. The comebacks, the overtimes, the power plays and penalty kills showed with every minute why these two teams were ranked one and two.
Losing was not choking for the Capitals. Winning was persevering and showing strength of character for the Penguins. The Capitals did not lose, the Penguins simply won.