With a three-goal third period, including two in 27 seconds, the Washington Capitals staved off elimination Saturday at Verizon Center and forced a Game 6 Monday in Pittsburgh.
Things started well for the Penguins even before Game 5 as captain Sidney Crosby and winger Conor Sheary, both of whom sustained concussions in Game 3, passed their concussion baseline testing and were cleared to return.
And the good news just kept coming for Pittsburgh. At 10:24 into the first period, forward Carl Hagelin found open space in front of the net and fired it past goaltender Braden Holtby to open the scoring. The Penguins had been 6-0 in this year’s playoffs when scoring the first goal.
Then the Caps got some momentum with a patient, late-period goal from Andre Burakovsky at 19:30, his first of the playoffs.
Andre Burakovsky pulls off a beautiful toe drag and snipes Marc-Andre Fleury to tie it up!
“We obviously gave them life,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “We got the first goal; we thought we had pretty good control of the game at that point. We talked about being strong at the lines; that’s an important part of winning at this time of year, and I thought that goal was avoidable.”
But the Penguins quickly retook the lead with a power-play goal at 4:20 of the second. Some quick, tic-tac-toe passing made its way to Phil Kessel on Holtby’s short side, and Kessel’s wrister found its way past the goaltender’s blocker.
That 2-1 lead held until early in a third period that would be all Washington.
It started with Nicklas Backstrom tying the contest at 2:49, then came the backbreakers – Evgeny Kuznetsov at 7:20, followed quickly by captain Alex Ovechkin at 7:49, to make it 4-2.
“We had the momentum going into the third, then they got that [Backstrom] goal and it kind of turned,” said forward Nick Bonino. “We’ve got to do a better job of taking things as they happen, staying on an even keel and coming back when it’s 2-2.”
“They just got some momentum,” Crosby said. “We had our chances to build on that lead and we didn’t. Then they tie it up and get some life off of that, gain some momentum there for a short span and end up putting another two in.”
The Penguins had plenty of time to counter after that, but couldn’t beat Holtby, whose third period might have been his strongest of the series.
“I think, a lot of the third period, we had some pushback,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We had some opportunities; we had some real high-quality chances. We didn’t convert.”
“That’s why he’s up for the Vezina [Trophy]; he’s one of the best in the league,” Bonino said. “You expect good goaltending in the playoffs, and they got it tonight.”
On the other side, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was hard on himself after the game.
“They kept coming at us and put the puck on net. Some I’d like to have back; that’s for sure,” Fleury said. “Just today in general was probably my worst one all playoffs, I think. I just want to forget about it and move on.”
Sullivan wasn’t so quick to put blame on his goalie – perhaps realizing that Fleury has allowed only 13 goals on 174 shots in this series, outright stealing a game or two for his team, compared to 16 on 115 shots for the Capitals’ netminders.
“He was solid,” Sullivan said. “He’s made save after save for us. The goals they scored were good goals. I think we could do a better job in front of him.”
That, they could.
For the fifth time in as many games, the Penguins were outshot (32-22), outchanced (66 attempted shots to 52) and outpossessed by the Presidents Trophy winners. That’s probably not the best formula for continued success.
“I would say just a little bit more zone time,” Crosby said on what the Penguins can improve. “If we can hold onto the puck in their end a little bit more, we should get more shots. I think we’ll generate a little bit more from that.”
Having more zone time would go a long way toward helping the Penguins repeat last year’s outcome, where they lost Game 5 in Washington but came home to eliminate the Capitals in six.
“We hope it goes like that, but nothing’s for granted,” Bonino said. “You never expect to sweep a team or win in five; you know it’s usually going six or seven with a good team, with the best team in the league. We have to have a mindset of coming home and winning.”
“They’re a good team,” said Fleury. “They finished first in the league and there’s a reason for it. We knew the last one’s always the hardest to get. It’s disappointing, but we’ve got to move on and redeem ourselves.”