Saturday morning, with the chance to close out their second-round playoff series, the Penguins talked of trying to match the Washington Capitals’ desperation.
“You know they’re going to have it,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “So hopefully you’re able to bring that same urgency, but also understand it’s always the hardest one [to win].”
When push came to shove, Pittsburgh wasn’t able to manufacture the desperation of the team facing elimination. With a 3-1 win, Washington lived to fight another day – Tuesday, when the series shifts back to CONSOL Energy Center for Game 6.
“I don’t think we sat back; I don’t think we took anything for granted,” Crosby said. “We generated some good chances and that’s playoff hockey. Sometimes you play well and lose, but I thought we did a lot of good things.”
Although the Penguins put up 31 shots to the Capitals’ 19, the ice felt tilted for long stretches of the contest – much of that with Washington on the power play – with Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray fighting to keep the game close. And, when the ice tilted in the other direction, Murray’s counterpart Braden Holtby looked like the Vezina Trophy favorite he is.
“I think for long stretches of the game, we were the better team,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought we had the puck more, I thought we controlled territory. I thought five-on-five, our play was pretty strong. I thought we were moving the puck; I thought we were playing fast.
“[Holtby] made some real timely saves for them, especially in the second period,” Sullivan said. “We had some grade-A chances we didn’t finish on. Our guy’s doing the same thing. I don’t think teams make it this far without that. Both goalies, I think, have been really good.”
The Penguins didn’t help their cause with 14 giveaways on the night, though the Capitals weren’t far behind with 13. Not even Brian Dumoulin, perhaps Pittsburgh’s steadiest defensive presence all season, was immune, putting a puck right on Capitals forward Justin Williams’ stick in front of Murray that became Washington’s third goal.
“I think it’s just hockey,” Sullivan said. “Brian’s played a lot of great hockey for us. When you play as many minutes as he’s played and you play against top players, you’re not going to play a perfect game. I’m sure he’d like to have that one back, but we’ve got to find a way as a group to recover.”
Most importantly, when it came to literal pushes and shoves, the Penguins weren’t able to turn the other cheek as they’d done so well earlier in the series. Upset when perceived infractions against them weren’t called, they retaliated.
“Our team has had success because we’ve had discipline, playing the game the right way,” Sullivan said. “When you play a team like Washington that has a power play as good as it is, you can’t give it the opportunity to be the difference.”
But that’s exactly what the Penguins did, gifting the Capitals’ lethal power play with five opportunities. Washington capitalized on two of them, with star forward Alex Ovechkin factoring in on both.
“They stick to their best weapon, and it’s a question of time before they get going,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “You don’t want them to get too many opportunities to bring that power play on the ice.”
“A little bit of bad discipline today,” said center Evgeni Malkin, who took one of the Penguins’ six minors. “We had a couple bad penalties and they scored two goals. It’s a dangerous team on the power play; we know Ovechkin’s a dangerous guy. Just play smarter.”
The Penguins’ normally strong penalty kill suffered from not being able to win faceoffs, giving the Capitals the chance to gain the puck and sustain pressure with the man-advantage.
“We couldn’t seem to win the first faceoff,” Sullivan said. “When you get that first clear, I think that’s when our penalty kill has an opportunity to be at its best. As a result, they got some zone time.”
Taking the two-goal deficit into the third period, Pittsburgh made the curious decision to reconfigure its forward lines without forward Patric Hornqvist, who saw only two shifts in the closing frame. In addition to scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 4 Wednesday, Hornqvist is in the top 25 playoff scorers, and No. 5 on the Penguins, with eight points (5G, 3A) in 10 games.
“We just shortened the bench,” Sullivan said. “We were trying to climb back into it and we went with the guys we thought were going and had some energy. I think there’s a comfort level there and, sometimes, if you juggle a line or two, something gets created.
“It’s not a case of – nobody gets benched, it’s none of that. It’s more who do we think is going, who gives us the best chance to score a goal.”
The Penguins are technically down to just one opportunity to close out the Capitals since, if the series goes back to the Verizon Center for Game 7, they’ll be facing elimination, too.
They say they’re ready to put their hard-won resiliency to the test.
“We’ll put [this] game behind us, but nothing’s easy,” Sullivan said. “This is a hard league; it’s hard to win. We’re playing against a really good team. We think we’re a really good team. We’ve got to have a short memory, take the good things we did tonight and build on them.
“We just have to win a game, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. This team has done a remarkable job all year of making sure we respond the right way.”
“Our team has become resilient,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “We had a lot to go through this year. And, since Christmas time, we’ve had to figure out how to come back from losses, how to come back from games where we don’t feel we played our best. We will go to work for the next two days and come out ready for the next game.”