Just when it looked like the Washington Capitals season was in big trouble, the Caps rallied from a 3-2 deficit with four third period tallies (two empty netters) to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-3, and take a three games to two series lead. Game six is Monday night at 7 pm from Pittsburgh.
Here are eight thoughts on what was a wild finish at Capital One Arena.
Stayin’ Alive – The fact that the Caps were down just one puck after 40 minutes can be attributed to one factor, Braden Holtby. The Penguins were all over the Capitals for most of the first two frames and if not for some dynamite saves by the Holtbeast, this was a 6-2 affair heading into the third period. Then, once the Caps tied it up early in period three, Holtby (36 saves) made the stop of the game on Brian Dumolin, who was all alone in the slot with the game on his stick. Holtby made a huge save at the most important time and the Capitals went the other way and got the Jakub Vrana game winning goal.
Stepping Up – Vrana had the game of his career on Saturday night. With Devante Smith-Pelly struggling mightily on the top unit with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Coach Barry Trotz changed up his lines very late in period two inserting the young Czech onto the top line. After a terrible giveaway on his first shift there, #13 really started making things happen. He fed Kuzy with a long stretch pass that sent #92 in all alone to tie the game up on a breakaway just 52 ticks into period three and then he went to the net to finish off Ovi’s pass that was deflected by Riley Sheahan and rolled into the slot for the game winning marker past Matt Murray (26 saves on 30 shots) with just over four minutes remaining. For the first two periods, Vrana played with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly and it was Vrana’s hard wall work, along with Eller, that sprung Connolly for a shot in the slot that he buried to make it 2-1 late in period one. That shot by Connolly hit Patric Hornqvist’s stick and went five hole on Murray. On the night, Vrana played 10:52, 4:45 of which came in period three, and he had a goal and two helpers and was +3. Jakub really stepped up and was a big factor in Washington’s win.
Accepting the Challenge – Coach Barry Trotz told the media after the game that he challenged both Kuznetsov and Ovechkin to be better after a subpar game four. Through 40 minutes, they were better, but still not good enough and Ovi’s bad penalty after a brutal giveaway allowed the Pens to tie things on the power play at two. Alex, like many of his teammates, was not skating in the middle frame. In the third period, that changed for both the Gr8 and Kuzy and they started to take over the game. Kuznetsov was very hard on the puck and as physical as I’ve seen him play. This was very much needed, especially since Nicklas Backstrom left the game with 13 minutes left. Kuzy logged 20:10, had a goal and two assists, was +2, and went 9-7 on draws. If Washington is to go on to win this series, Kuznetsov will need to play a full game like he did in the third period on Saturday and the same goes for Ovechkin, who must bear down more in his own end.
Pay the Man – John Carlson, who’s wife had a baby on Friday, turned in another stud performance on the back end. His power play goal late in period one tied the game and #74 played 25:47 to lead all Capitals in ice time. Carly is a big game player and he is going to get paid well this summer, but right now, his focus is on defeating the Penguins. Carlson seems to play his best hockey against Pittsburgh in the playoffs and this spring is no exception. Late in the game, John was hit up high in the head by Jake Guentzel, but no penalty was called. Pierre McGuire, the Penguins commentator on NBC, called it a clean, hard hit. The replays I saw sure looked like a shot to #74’s head. Coach Trotz called it out afterwards, noting that the standard has been set (likely via the questionable Tom Wilson three game suspension), and stated that the league would review the play. The truth is, all hits are reviewed in the postseason, but clearly Washington was not happy about that one. I was able to talk with Carlson after the game and when asked about the Guentzel hit by another member of the media, he quickly shrugged it off and stood waiting for the next question. There was no whining by #74, at all.
Overmatched – Shane Gersich drew into the lineup again and he did not play well. His defensive zone turnover led to the first goal and then he lost Derrick Brassard in the slot on another first period shift, but luckily the Holtbeast bailed him out. #63 only played nine shifts for 5:42 and was -1. It’s quite possible Travis Boyd could draw in for Gersich on Monday, assuming Backstrom is able to play, and that’s a big if right now.
Nothing But Guts – The Caps are up after five games in a series with Pittsburgh for the first time since they started this annual second round meeting in 2016. This team was essentially without three of its top six forwards for the last 13 minutes, but found a way to win. There was no Andre Burakovsky, Wilson, or Backstrom, but somehow the guys bonded together and outworked the Pens. This was a gutsy, hard working effort and one of the most impressive victories in the Ovechkin era.
Can They Do It? – The Capitals won’t get Wilson back until one more game is played, Burakovsky is still week to week, and Backstrom’s status will be updated on Sunday afternoon. That is some serious firepower out of the lineup, so despite being up a game, the Penguins still have a very good chance of winning this series. The Pens rallied from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa in 2016, so they know how to come back. The key for Washington will be surviving the first 20 minutes in period one in game six. They’ll have to be very smart defensively and move their feet. They must stay out of the box and play a north-south game. Washington has improved in the north-south department as these playoffs have gone on. The Caps need to slow the game down and not get caught up in an end to end rush affair.
Notes: Pittsburgh went two for five on the power play while the Caps were one for three. Washington would prefer a five on five affair, so they must be disciplined in the Steel City…Kris Letang led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…Hornqvist had eight shots on goal, many from around the paint…If Backstrom is out for game six, then Kuzy stays number one center and Eller could move up to #2 with Beagle likely filling the third line center role…the Pens won the faceoff battle, 37-36. Beagle and Kuzy both went 9-7.