Late in the first period of a potential elimination game in which they had generated three shots – and none of them particularly threatening – the Penguins’ home-ice advantage had turned to boos.
By a second period that went much the same way, fans derisively cheered when the Penguins so much as managed to break out of their own zone. They rained down boos toward the end of a mid-period power play in which Pittsburgh registered just its sixth shot and best scoring chance so far, a straight-away shot by Tom Kuhnhackl that was an easy stop for Washington goalie Braden Holtby.
If the fans were frustrated, the players felt their pain.
Washington got bodies and sticks in the Penguins’ shooting and passing lanes. They sustained a relentless forecheck that kept Pittsburgh hemmed in the defensive zone. They took away everything about the speed and skill that constitute the Penguins getting to their game.
“We didn’t dictate the terms out there like we’ve talked about,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve got to do a better job of holding onto pucks. We’ve got to spend time in the offensive zone. We need a cooperative effort; we’ve got to stay together.
“I think the (26-18) shot clock is an indication of that. When we do put the puck in, we’ve got to do a better job of where we put it.”
Along the way, the Caps cashed in with a couple of goals – one from T.J. Oshie on Washington’s second power play of the game, with a Sidney Crosby-esque drop to one knee to shoot through a screen, and a second from Andre Burakovsky, who found a way to tuck it past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on the short side.
If that 2-0 deficit felt like too much to overcome on this night, a long shot from Nicklas Backstrom that sailed over Fleury, just 16 seconds into the third, didn’t help.
Fleury let up another long goal on a John Carlson slapshot at 11:17 of the third, then another to Burakovsky at close range at 12:29.
At 5-0, the Penguins were being suffocated and beaten in embarrassing fashion.
“Tough game for us; bad luck tonight,” Evgeni Malkin said. “Nothing worked. No power play, no PK, no five-on-five.”
“Tonight’s not good enough,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We just didn’t execute in all areas.”
Forwards Jake Guentzel and Malkin added two late-game goals to break Holtby’s shutout, but that just served to make the 5-2 final score look more competitive than it was.
In a concerning subplot, Crosby crashed into the boards early in the first period in a collision with Carlson and teammate Patric Hornqvist. Crosby, who missed Game 4 with a concussion, held his head with his hands and was slow to get up. He headed to the bench and returned to the game without missing time.
“When you go in like that, it just kind of knocked the wind out of me,” Crosby said. “Kind of a fluky fall; not want you want to take too often.” He said he was “checked out” between periods. When Sullivan was asked the same question, however, he answered with an emphatic, “No.”
Now the Penguins head to Washington for a Game 7 that, after coming all the way back from a 3-1 deficit, feels like it’s the Capitals’ to lose.
“Probably yes but, if you play Game 7, it’s always 50-50,” Malkin said. “No one’s favorite. We know we have good team, good goalie. If we play how we want, how we can, 100 percent, we can win. We win three games before; it’s just one more game. They think because they win an easy game tonight they win Game 7? I say, ‘No.’”
On the bright side for Pittsburgh? They’re 5-0 all-time on the road in Game 7. They’ve only won one Game 7 after losing Game 6 – but that was against the Washington Capitals, en route to their third Stanley Cup, in 2009.
“We made things a little more difficult for ourselves,” Crosby said. “Now we go into Washington for Game 7, but that’s the way it stands right now. We’ve got to forget this one and turn the page pretty quickly. But we can’t expect the result we want with playing like that.”
“This league’s going to test your resilience. It’s going to test your resolve,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got to find ways to reenergize and we can’t let this one affect us. It wasn’t the way we wanted to play, but we’re certainly not going to dwell on it; I promise you that.
“We’re going to go back to work tomorrow, we’re going to reset our mindset and we’re going to be a determined group for Game 7.”