Saturday, May 05, 2018

Eastern Conference Semifinal -- Game 5: Washington Capitals 6 - Pittsburgh Penguins 3


“Deep breath”

“Calm down”

That was Braden Holtby after the Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-3, to take a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.  Holtby was a tower of strength for the Caps in the face of a scoring chance onslaught by the Pens, but he had a lot of help.

Pittsburgh opened the scoring on Jamie Olesiak’s first goal of the postseason barely two minutes into the game.  It was a one-timer from long range that appeared to be redirected on route to the net. 

The thin lead for the Pens almost survived the period.  Almost.  The Caps knotted the score with less than two minutes left on a power play.  T.J. Oshie fought off a double team to keep a loose puck alive along the right wing boards.  Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up to lend support, scooping the puck back and sliding it to John Carlson at the right point.  The new dad walked the puck to the middle and let fly with a shot that goalie Matt Murray waved at with his glove but could not snare.  Carlson’s goal tied things up at 18:22. 

The tie lasted 35 seconds.  Jakub Vrana emerged from a scrum along the left wing boards and fed Brett Connolly, who slid into the high slot and snapped a shot that was deflected by Patric Hornqvist and through Murray’s five-hole to give the Caps their first lead 18:55 into the period.

The second period started with the Caps wearing a path to the penalty box.  Alex Ovechkin took a slashing penalty 4:24 into the period, and Devante Smith-Pelly went off on a tripping call at the 6:57 mark.  Pittsburgh scored on both power plays, Sidney Crosby getting his nine goal of the postseason on the first power play and Hornqvist putting the Pens in front at the 7:46 mark on the second man advantage.  The 3-2 lead for the Pens held up going into the second intermission.

The demons that haunt this arena were hanging from the rafters at the start of the third period, waiting for the Caps to fold.  They were disappointed.  Evgeny Kuznetsov took a stretch feed from new top-linemate Jakub Vrana, broke in alone on Murray, and slid the puck between his pads to tie the game just 52 seconds into the period.

For almost 15 minutes, it looked more and more as if the teams would have to settle this contest in overtime.  Vrana put an end to that thinking, or at least pushed it aside, when he took a slick feed from behind the net by Alex Ovechkin and snapped a puck into what was a vacant net with Murray out of position defending Ovechkin.  The Caps had the lead for good 15:22 into the period.

The Caps, or rather Holtby, clamped down from there, and Oshie and Lars Eller added empty net goals to send Caps fans off to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the 6-3 win.

Other stuff…

-- Going into this game, Pittsburgh was 27-4 when scoring first in the postseason over the last three seasons, 31-6 when leading after two periods. That is now 27-5 and 31-7.

-- Jakub Vrana had a goal and two assists, making him the fifth Caps player to record three or more points in a game in this postseason.  The others are Nicklas Backstrom (twice), John Carlson (twice), Evgeny Kuznetsov (twice, including this game), and Lars Eller.

-- Speaking of Backstrom, he appeared to block a shot with his right hand.  He took only three faceoffs in the contest, and he missed most of the third period, finishing with just 15:55 in ice time.  The team will have more to say about his condition on Sunday.

-- Lars Eller had a goal and an assist for his third career multi-point playoff game with the Caps.  All of them have come against Pittsburgh, all on home ice.

-- Alex Ovechkin had three shots on goal in the first 10:00 of the game.  He did not have another over the last 50:00.

-- T.J. Oshie gets the coupon for the all-you-can eat buffet.  A goal, an assists, two points, plus-2, four shots, six shot attempts, a hit, two takeaways, and four draws taken in 21:12 in ice time.

-- The Caps did have shot balance.  They had 32 shots on goal, but no Cap had more than four (Carlson, Oshie).

-- Brett Connolly did not have a goal in any of his first 14 career playoff games.  His goal tonight gives him two in his last four games.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up in a quiet way.  Not normally a very efficient faceoff performer, he won six of ten in the offensive zone and his only defensive zone draw. With Nicklas Backstrom unable to take draws and out for most of the third period, it helped.

-- Here is an odd Braden Holtby stat.  This was the 12th time in his career he faced at least 39 shots in a game, only the third in which the game was settled in regulation.  Nevertheless, he has never lost such a game in regulation time.  He now has six wins and six overtime losses in such games.

In the end…

If the Caps should go on to win this series, this game will take on an aura of legend.  That is not an overstatement.  After losing a game in which they could have taken a stranglehold on this series in Pittsburgh in Game 4, no one would have been surprised if the Caps went quick and quiet, especially with two top-six forwards (Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky) out of the lineup.  With the Caps playing a short bench (Alex Chiasson and Shane Gersich finished with less than ten minutes for the game, and Nicklas Backstrom was out with an injury sustained earlier in the game), they still came back from a goal down after 40 minutes to overtake a team that has given them fits, often on this ice sheet.

The Caps did it with balanced scoring, a big contribution from a young guy, and a memorable performance from their goaltender.  If the Caps are still short three top-six forwards in Game 6 on Monday night, they will need to mix the same formula to ensure that the next game at Capital One Arena is Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.