But then they didn’t seize it, and here is how the Penguins made sure of that.
Penguins grab early lead, and this time the Capitals’ push never comes
The Capitals trailed by one goal entering the third period, but the offense withered in the biggest moment of the season. The Penguins out-shot the Capitals 10-2 in the first 12 minutes of the period and extended their lead to two goals. From there, the Capitals’ offense never had a counterpunch.
After trailing 2-1 entering the third period of Game 5, the Capitals scored eight unanswered goals. The first three came in that third and kept their season alive for two more days. The next five were scattered across Game 6 and extended the series to Game 7.
The explosion coincided with Capitals Coach Barry Trotz shuffling his lines, moving Alex Ovechkin to the third line and Andre Burakovsky to the first. Burakovsky registered two goals and an assist after the switch, while Ovechkin netted a third-period goal in Game 6.
Meanwhile, the Penguins hadn’t topped three goals since a 6-2 Game 2 win, and were struggling mightily to establish themselves in the offensive zone. On Wednesday, they were without Carl Hagelin (who missed time with a lower-body injury earlier in the season) and replaced Tom Kuhnhackl with Scott Wilson on the fourth line.
That Capitals’ offensive rhythm didn’t immediately extend into Game 7, as they lost their footing after a strong start.
The Penguins’ offense wasn’t much sharper to start, generating a small handful of tangible chances as the game remained scoreless after 20 minutes. Then the Penguins grabbed the lead on Bryan Rust’s goal 8:49 into the second period. Heading into Wednesday, the team that scored first was 5-1 in the series. The Capitals tried to erase the early deficit with a bevy of solid chances in the second period, and their shot total climbed to 23 by the start of the third.
But none of them went in before Patric Hornqvist stretched the Penguins’ lead to two goals at the start of the third.
Marc-Andre Fleury was unbeatable
Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves in a shutout, which only magnified the few mistakes Braden Holtby made before standing on his head in the final moments of the Capitals’ season. Holtby gave up two goals — two too many, as it turns out — and made 26 saves before he was pulled for an extra skater around the two-minute mark of the third period.
Holtby had his major slip up in Game 2, in which he allowed three goals on 14 shots and was pulled before the start of the third period. Since, he has not allowed more than three goals in a game and came a few minutes from a shutout in Game 6. Fleury was rock solid at the start of the series, but slowly started to leak as the games rolled by. He allowed four goals in Game 5 — three in the third period — and then five in Game 6. In total, he had allowed eight goals in the four periods leading into Game 7.
All that illustrated how crucial the two goaltenders were in this matchup of two flammable offenses.
“Throughout the series we’ve grown bit by bit,” Holtby said Wednesday morning of the Capitals, but he also could have been talking about himself. “… For me, just focus on one shot at a time, play naturally.”
Holtby was hot at the start, sucking up 10 Penguins’ shots on goal in the first period. Fleury discarded eight Capitals’ shots in the first, though only a few of them were high-grade chances.
But Holtby cracked on Rust’s goal in the second, which beat him high glove side. At the same time, Fleury was heating up as the Capitals shots on goal total climbed to 21 with three minutes left in the second. At the end of two, Fleury had 23 saves while Holtby had 16 while allowing the game’s only goal. After a string of saves in the back half of the period, Fleury was smiling under his mask while dusting ice shavings off his crease.
He also got a little help from his right goal post.
The Penguins used that effort as a springboard, as Hornqvist scored a backhanded goal 4:14 into the third. Hornqvist’s goal surprised Holtby after it went through Nate Schmidt’s legs, nicked the goaltender’s shoulder and bounced into the top-right corner of the net.
It couldn’t be pinned on Holtby per se, but was a second blemish on a performance that couldn’t stand up to Fleury’s when it mattered most.
Injuries still don’t catch up to Penguins
The Penguins were without four regular starters by the end of the seven-game series. They had been without Kris Letang for the whole playoffs, but Hagelin, Kuhnhackl and defenseman Trevor Daley all missed Game 7 with undisclosed injuries.
That led to defenseman Chad Ruhwedel being paired with Ian Cole, and Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney skating alongside center Matt Cullen on the Penguins’ fourth line. The Penguins have been hampered by injuries all season and series, and this time they added up to a whole different lineup from the one Coach Mike Sullivan skated onto the ice for Game 5 last Saturday.
That would at first appear to be not all too detrimental, as Games 5 and 6 were the Penguins’ two worst of the series. And the Game 7 lineup, though oddly reshuffled due to all the team’s bumps and bruises, was still able to discard a Capitals team that was fully intact.
Bryan Rust inches towards Justin Williams’ Game 7 prowess
Justin Williams came into this game known as “Mr. Game 7,” but instead it was Rust taking another step toward that territory.
Williams earned the nickname with eerie Game 7 stats in his career heading into Wednesday night: 7-0 record, seven goals, seven assists. He did not add to those totals in the defeat.
“It’s going to be a fight of will,” Williams said. “And I can tell you one thing: I’m going to give everything I have tonight and make sure I don’t let my teammates down and everyone in this room is going to do the same, and we’ll be fine… ”
But that wasn’t the case in the end.
Last May, the now 24-year-old Rust scored twice in the Penguins’ 2-1 win over the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He how has three goals in two career Game 7s, and one the Capitals will likely remember for a long time.
Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed reporting.