In a two-minute span of the third period, the Penguins saw their goal of ending Game 6 with a handshake line on home ice starting to unravel.
With a bizarre series of three consecutive delay-of-game penalties for sending pucks over the glass, Pittsburgh was forced to kill two consecutive two-man advantages of about a minute each. Finally, inevitably, the Capitals’ John Carlson got the game-tying goal to cap his team’s comeback from a 3-0 deficit and send the game to overtime.
For the Penguins, the silver lining was that they allowed only that game-tying goal, and not a go-ahead one, on the sequence.
“It’s one of the worst feelings in the world when you let that puck go off your stick and know it’s going out,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who worked on the penalty kill while teammates Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Ian Cole served their minor penalties.
“You never want it to happen. It’s an unlucky play where the players are trying to make a hard play out of the zone on the penalty kill, and [the Capitals] have such an elite power play. We knew we had to get that one big stop, and we were able to do that to get to overtime.”
“I just wish they didn’t bat it out of the rink,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s a tough situation because those plays are so instinctive. The players are doing everything they can to defend. You see a loose puck up in the air and Bonino’s trying to get it out of the danger zone. It happens in a fraction of a second.
“Sometimes, especially late in a game like that, the building’s hot; the ice isn’t great. Ian Cole’s trying to get a clear; sometimes the puck jumps up on edge on you. What do you do differently? Those instances, some of it is out of your control. So we try to focus on those things we can control.”
So the Penguins went into the locker room between the third period and overtime and tried to quickly turn the page on a third period in which they were thoroughly outplayed by a desperate Washington team.
“Just stay the course,” said goaltender Matt Murray. “We knew the whole series that we were the better team 5-on-5, and their comeback was because we gave the power play too many opportunities.”
“Guys were quiet, focused and excited to go out and have a chance,” Lovejoy said. “And I thought we were able to carry the play in overtime.”
They were, carrying a 7-3 shot advantage that culminated in Bonino getting a feed from Carl Hagelin right in the goal mouth to take two cracks at Capitals netminder Braden Holtby. The second went in, ending the game and the series.
“I can’t put it into words right now,” Bonino said. “I’ve still got chills a little bit.”
Holtby fell face-first to the ice, and the Penguins cleared the bench to pile on the ice and celebrate.
“You’re sitting on a 3-0 hole, and it just said a lot about our team having the fortitude to stick with it and come back,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “There was no quit in our group. I’m proud of that fact, but we didn’t get it done.”
The Penguins, meanwhile, found a way to recover after blowing that 3-0 lead – which included an early goal from Kessel and power-play goals from Kessel and Hagelin, both on a double-minor for high-sticking to former Penguin Brooks Orpik in the second.
“What I’ve loved about this group is their resilience,” Sullivan said. “When we got to the overtime, we just talked about taking a deep breath. Can’t change what just happened; we’ve got to let it go and just play.
“These guys, to their credit, have done an amazing job of not allowing any ebbs and flows of the game [to affect them] – and it might’ve been challenged the most all year tonight in that third period. The leadership in our room was strong, and we just went out in the overtime and started to play again.”
For the most part, at least for the first two periods, the Penguins had the better of the play by sticking with how they’ve had success. For Sullivan, that’s carrying the play territorially, generating scoring chances and getting all four lines involved to keep players fresh and playing at a high tempo.
The ability to roll four speedy, contributing lines – particularly the third line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel – was the single biggest difference in putting the Penguins over the edge, as the Capitals managed to contain star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the series.
“We have a third line full of grinders,” Lovejoy joked. “You can match up against Sid, Geno, but the Bonino line is feasting on [opponents’] third and fourth lines.”
“That line has been really good for us for a long time now,” Sullivan said. “When we have the balance we do, I think it presents matchup problems for our opponents.
“When you look at tonight’s game, it was a collective effort. For me it was the consummate team win. Every guy on our roster contributed; not everybody showed up on the score sheet but everybody, to a man, made a significant contribution to helping us win tonight.”
The Penguins will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, as they wait for the West to be decided with both series going to a Game 7.
“It means a lot,” Malkin said. “We worked hard the whole year. Slow beginning, but we [acquired] a couple guys and started to play better, new coach, now we’re a tight group. Everyone is really friendly here in the locker room and four lines play hard.
“We try to play [in the Stanley Cup] Final; it’s our dream. Washington is a really good team; we say thank you for a good series because they played amazing. Three overtime games. It’s a tough team and, after this win, we have more confidence.”
The Presidents Trophy winners think that confidence is justified.
“Congrats to the Penguins,” Trotz said. “Super hockey team, good series and I wish them all the best going forward. They did a really terrific job down the stretch of being the hottest team in the National Hockey League and they carried it over to the playoffs. I really think they’ve got a shot at it.”