Questionable hits turning up heat between Penguins, Capitals

Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Eric Fehr (16) is hit by teammate Evgeni Malkin's (71) stick after colliding with Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson (43) and losing the puck during the first period of Game 2 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Washington. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The number of hits the Washington Capitals have tried to level on the Pittsburgh Penguins through two contentious games in the Eastern Conference semifinals is not a surprise.

The nature of those hits? Well, that’s another matter.

Tom Wilson’s run-in with Conor Sheary’s knee in Game 1 cost the Washington forward a couple grand in fines. Brooks Orpik’s elbow to Olli Maatta’s chin early in Game 2 ended with Maatta skating woozily off the ice, the young defenseman’s status for the rest of the best-of-seven series uncertain and Orpik out three games after being suspended by the NHL on Sunday night.

And to think there’s at least nine more periods — and almost certainly more — to come with things even at 1 heading into Monday night’s Game 3 in Pittsburgh.

“That’s what they want to do,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “They want to wear us down by being physical.”

Which the Penguins totally understand. For years, teams have tried to offset Pittsburgh’s speed by trying to knock the Penguins around in an attempt to slow them down. What’s different this time around, however, is the way Pittsburgh has responded. Or maybe in the way it hasn’t.

“We know taking that hit or taking that punch is going to go a long way,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Hopefully we keep getting some power plays here and find a way to convert on them.”

Rather than retaliate, the Penguins have decided to absorb the blows and push on. Though Pittsburgh is 0 for 7 with the man advantage through two games, the Penguins are fine with trying to stay above the fray. The way they figure it, if they’re skating 5-on-4, the Capitals are expending plenty of energy on their half of the ice.

It beats the alternative: losing their cool and letting Washington star Alexander Ovechkin swoop menacingly in the left circle waiting for the puck with at least one Penguin or more in the penalty box.

“If we start play like dirty plays, we take bad penalties,” Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin said. “We know Washington has a good power play.”

One that didn’t see much ice time Saturday night.

The Penguins controlled most of the first two periods and withstood a serious push by the Capitals in the third, winning it on Eric Fehr’s redirect of a feed from Malkin with less than five minutes to go to avoid falling into a 0-2 hole against the team that finished the season with the league’s best record.

Having the seemingly tireless Letang around helped. He played a game-high 35 minutes when Maatta’s exit left the Penguins short a defenseman. Maatta was being evaluated Sunday, and coach Mike Sullivan isn’t optimistic Maatta will be in the lineup Monday night, likely elevating Justin Schultz back into the lineup.

Either way, the Capitals are hoping to see a little less of Letang going forward. Staying off the penalty kill would help.

“I didn’t think we’d spent (enough time in their end),” Washington forward Daniel Winnik said. “We made it an easy game for him.”

Something Washington wants to avoid. The Capitals outhit the Penguins 43-29 in Game 1, though Pittsburgh took a small advantage in Game 2, the first time the Penguins have been credited with more hits than their opponent in the playoffs. It’s a statistic Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t puts much credence in, figuring if the one team is hitting the other, that’s because it doesn’t have the puck.

The Capitals view it a bit differently. Their bruising forecheck is designed to create turnovers in the offensive zone, though that’s not what happened between Orpik and Maatta. Washington goaltender Braden Holtby had just turned away a shot from Maatta when Orpik caught the 21-year-old right on the chin long after the puck was gone.

Washington coach Barry Trotz defended Orpik in the aftermath, pointing to Orpik’s reputation as a tough but smart defender, adding the Penguins know Orpik isn’t a dirty player. On that point, he’s right. Orpik spent the first 11 years of his career in Pittsburgh, his steady play at the blue line helping the franchise to its third Stanley Cup in 2009. The respect level remains high now that he’s on the other side of a rivalry that stretches back a quarter century.

“Sometimes he brings out emotion and stuff happens,” Letang said. “These things happen.”

Maybe, but twice in two games the Capitals have delivered blows that crossed the threshold between aggressive and illegal, though defenseman Matt Niskanen thinks the series still has a long way to go to match the ugly tenor of Washington’s victory over Philadelphia in the conference quarterfinals.

“It was competitive,” Niskanen said. “As far as nastiness? That was mellow compared to the first round.”

For now.