Stanley Cup Takeaways: Pittsburgh holds its breath on Crosby, Verhaeghe takes over

Twenty-eight minutes into Game 5 between the Penguins and Rangers, everything was coming up Pittsburgh.

Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang had the Pens up 2-0, and while the Rangers ran around doing all they could to put black-and-yellow jerseys through the boards, it looked like New York — down 3-1 in this first-round bout — were reaching the end of the line.

And then a few minutes of chaos flipped it all on its head.

First, a rogue elbow from Jacob Trouba connects with Sidney Crosby up high. Then, the captain, appearing to be in some discomfort on the bench, heads down the tunnel and doesn’t return. 

A minute later, the first time head coach Mike Sullivan sends Crosby’s usual linemates, Guentzel and Bryan Rust, out with Jeff Carter instead of No. 87, the Rangers get a goal. The crowd erupts.

Then they score again. And again.

In two and a half minutes, the Rangers went from down 0-2 to up 3-2. Pittsburgh showed some quick-fire fight of their own, answering with a second Guentzel goal right after New York’s third to tie it up, but the Rangers just kept pouring it on in third. 

A pair of Rangers tallies in the final frame sealed a 5-3 win to keep the Blueshirts’ season alive. For the Pens, though, the only question anyone will be asking after Wednesday night is what the situation is with Crosby, as anything other than a quick return will spell disaster for the Pennsylvanian side.

Asked about his captain after the game, Sullivan would only say that Crosby is “being evaluated.”

Pittsburgh’s already been handed some brutal injury luck so far this post-season — missing star No. 1 netminder Tristan Jarry, solid backup netminder Casey DeSmith, top-pairing defenceman Brian Dumoulin, and their marquee trade deadline pickup Rickard Rakell.

Somehow, they’ve managed to pull through that mess and put themselves in position to knock out these high-flying Rangers. But No. 87 has been crucial to that resilience so far, and an extended absence from the captain might be the final crack in the foundation for this 2022 run.

BIZARRE BETWEEN THE PIPES

The Rangers have staved off elimination for the day, pushing the series to 3-2. But if Pittsburgh does manage to take one of the next two and move on to the second round for the first time in four years, the story of the first round will be none other than Louis Domingue.

By now, we all know the story of Domingue’s introduction to these playoffs #SpicyPorkAndBroccoli. But it’s the wider context of this ‘tender battle that makes the whole thing so wild.

Through five games, the Pens and Rangers have combined for an absurd 42 goals. Every game’s featured at least seven. And aside from that Game 1 triple-overtime marathon, they haven’t been all that close — New York put up a five-spot on Pittsburgh in Games 2 and 5, and the Penguins piled up seven on them in Games 3 and 4.

On Domingue’s side, the numbers are about what you’d expect from a No. 3 thrust into a whirlwind first-round series unexpectedly — after staving off 17 shots in the wild 16 minutes of overtime action he was thrown into in Game 1, he’s allowed 15 goals through the four games he’s actually started. Not great.

But it’s even dicier on the other side — through the five games played by the man that will almost certainly win the 2022 Vezina Trophy, Igor Shesterkin’s allowed 19 goals to squeak by him. He’s been pulled twice, in the two games that allowed Pittsburgh to shoot out to a 3-1 series lead.

He put in a better, but not incredible, effort Wednesday, turning aside 29 of 32 shots to help his Rangers stay alive. But if New York has any hopes of surviving Pittsburgh and perhaps going on a run, some better showings from No. 31 seem an absolute must.

CARTER VERHAEGHE VS. THE WORLD

The Carter Verhaeghe Show’s pulled up to these playoffs, and at the perfect time for the Florida Panthers.

It’s been a tumultuous start to the 2022 post-season for the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Coming into the playoffs with one of the most dominant offences in recent memory, the Cats ran into a brick wall in Game 1, falling 4-2 to the veteran Washington Capitals. The next two games, the sides traded blowouts — 5-1 for Florida, then 6-1 for Washington. In Game 4, they grinded through a nail-biter, which Florida snagged to tie the series.

But in that pivotal Game 4, something shifted.

When the Cats found themselves trailing seven minutes in, it wasn’t Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart or Anthony Duclair (the club’s top scorers during the regular season) who brought them back level. It was Verhaeghe, scoring in the first to tie things up. It was Verhaeghe, scoring in overtime once the game had become knotted up again, his second of the night saving his club from falling down 3-1 against Alex Ovechkin’s side.

Wednesday night, it was Verhaeghe again. But this time No. 23 took it to an entirely new level.

Again, his Panthers fell into a hole early. This time it was three Caps goals piled on — one in the first and two in the opening minutes of the second. Again, Florida found themselves staring down a rough night that would push them to the brink. Then this happened:

Just under seven minutes into the second, Verhaeghe scores. Five minutes later, he sets up Patric Hornqvist for a goal. Two minutes after that, he sets up Reinhart for a goal. Three minutes into the third, another one for Verhaeghe himself. Twelve minutes later, a dish to Claude Giroux for one more, because why not.

All told, it was a five-point night for the 26-year-old — two goals and three primary helpers — to bury the Caps and put his Panthers up 3-2 in the series. Not a bad night for a guy who was squeezed out of the fringes of the champion Tampa Bay Lightning’s lineup.

There’s your early Conn Smythe frontrunner.

PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 2?

For years, the Capitals’ post-season runs have had a few defining features — massive goals from No. 8, and a ridiculous amount of borderline checks from Tom Wilson. Fans of every team that lines up opposite the Caps hate it, fans of the D.C. side relish it.

Washington’s run has a different complexion this time around though, as Wilson finds himself on the outside looking in, sidelined with a lower-body injury. But while the Caps might not have their perennial Public Enemy No. 1, they’re getting that same polarizing fire from veteran T.J. Oshie.

The hard-hitting winger’s been dominant in the first round so far. Through five games, only two Caps players have put up more than a single goal — Evgeny Kuznetsov, with two, and Oshie, with five tallies in five nights.

He’s been crucial on a nightly basis as D.C. fights to match these Panthers, scoring the game-winner in Game 1, starting off the Capitals’ goal parade in Game 3, factoring into both goals in a tight Game 4 (scoring the first, getting a helper on the second).

He drew plenty of attention in that Game 4 with a controversial, Wilson-esque check to Sam Bennett, which had the Twitterverse debating fines and suspensions as only the Caps can inspire. Ultimately, Oshie escaped without punishment for the play.

Coming into Game 5, there was sure to be a response. And yet, Oshie didn’t wilt. He scored his side’s first goal, added another a period later. Love it or hate it, that’s Capitals hockey through and through — bruising physicality that flies so close to the line it spills over, that gets under your skin, and gets teams off their game.

How many times have fans had to watch Wilson run around on their club, and then go on to score a clutch goal? With the big-bodied winger out, and questions of whether Ovechkin’s 100 per cent, Oshie’s taken over the mantle.

The former Cup winner’s no stranger to scoring in big moments for Washington, but for all his playoff experience, his five playoff goals so far this year already rank as the third-most he’s ever scored in a single run — when the Caps won the cup in 2018, he put up eight in 24 games.

Unfortunately for Oshie, his Capitals got Verhaeghe’d on Wednesday night, pushing them to the brink heading into Game 6. But if a Game 7 is in Washington’s cards, there’s little question who it’ll be getting them there.



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