Washington Capitals 6, Pittsburgh Penguins 3
Series: Capitals lead 3-2
Next game: Monday, 7 p.m. ET, PPG Paints Arena
• An unlikely hero gives Washington a big comeback victory. (Read more)
• The top line is reborn. (Read more)
• Jakub Vrana assisted on the game-tying goal, then scored the go-ahead goal to put the Capitals up 4-3 in the final five minutes of Game 5. Washington added two empty-net goals to prevail 6-3. (Read more)
• The spotlight in Game 5 will be on if Washington can gets its top line reignited. (Read more)
The Washington Capitals’ game-saving — and maybe playoff-saving — goal came from a 22-year-old rookie unburdened by the organization’s tortured postseason history. Jakub Vrana was 2 years old the last time the Capitals got past the second round. He was a scratch in the first round of this postseason. He barely saw the ice at the start of this series. He was a hero Saturday night.
In a tied third period, Vrana followed Alex Ovechkin down the ice, and after Ovechkin skated to the right of Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray to pull him out of position, Ovechkin lightly put a pass into the slot for Vrana, who tapped the puck into a wide-open net as if it was no big deal. He tried to keep that composure as he stood in front of a line of reporters in the locker room after the game, but then he showed the youth and exuberance that has made him a crucial piece of this Capitals team.
“Obviously, it feels really [expletive] good,” Vrana said quickly as he took a deep breath.
That goal stood as the game-winner in Washington’s 6-3 victory over the Penguins. T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller added late empty-net goals to secure the result, and the Capitals are now one win away from advancing to the conference finals for a first time in 20 years. Saturday’s victory came because of a key midgame adjustment from Coach Barry Trotz, who promoted Vrana to the top line beside Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“I think the playoffs build a lot of character,” Trotz said. “They build confidence, and Jake has stayed with it. He’s had stretches this year where he’s gone 21 games without even a goal on our second line, playing substantial minutes. For a young guy to battle through that and navigate a young career, sometimes you could get a little frustrated. I think we’ve really done a really good job of managing him and getting him to understand that there’s so many things that you can contribute if you’re not just scoring.
“I think he’s learned that, he’s settled in, and he’s a contributing player now.”
Just 52 seconds into the third period, Kuznetsov got to flap his wings. He collected a pass from Vrana in the neutral zone, and with Pittsburgh’s top defensive pairing caught out of position, Kuznetsov got a breakaway, beating Murray with a backhand shot through his legs. Then, in a celebration not seen since the Capitals played the Penguins last postseason, Kuznetsov lifted one leg and imitated a bird as he fanned his arms up and down.
But just as Washington started to play its best hockey of the game in the third period, center Nicklas Backstrom left the bench and went to the locker room with an “upper-body” injury. Something seemed off with him all game, as center Chandler Stephenson oddly took the faceoffs for Backstrom. The Capitals are already down two regular top-six forwards with Andre Burakovsky injured and Tom Wilson suspended for one more game, so an injury to Backstrom could be devastating.
But even playing down a forward, the Capitals showed a resiliency not seen in past postseasons. It started with goaltender Braden Holtby, who had made 28 saves through two periods. He saved a point-blank shot by defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and that led to Vrana and Ovechkin’s rush up the ice for the game-winning goal.
Trotz had seemed hesitant to trust Vrana before this game. He can be a defensive liability, especially against Pittsburgh’s superstar forward corps, but he also has dynamic speed and offensive upside the Capitals haven’t had in past series against the Penguins.
“Obviously it means a lot when the coach trusts you for a player,” Vrana said. “You just get confidence. It’s a big responsibility. You’ve just got to make sure you go out there and get those little details right.”
Both Trotz and Ovechkin acknowledged that the top line needed to be better after it struggled in Game 4, just the third playoff game in Ovechkin’s career in which he didn’t record a single shot on goal. He rectified that on the first shift Saturday, putting the first puck on net in the game with a wrist shot 15 feet in front of the net. Murray saved it, and momentum seemed to favor the Penguins when Conor Sheary screened Holtby as defenseman Jamie Oleksiak’s point shot scored 2:23 into the game.
Ovechkin finished with three shots on goal by the end of the first period, and it was just his presence that allowed the Capitals to tie the score. Pittsburgh’s Dominik Simon was whistled for tripping in the offensive zone, and with the Penguins’ penalty kill shading Ovechkin, defenseman John Carlson had plenty of room as he ripped a shot past Murray’s glove.
Thirty-three seconds after his goal, Washington took the lead. Vrana won a puck battle along the wall and set up Brett Connolly in the high slot. The puck went off Patric Hornqvist’s hand before fluttering through Murray’s legs.
But Washington’s penalty kill seemed to miss Wilson, suspended for three games after an illegal check to the head in Game 3 of the series, and as the Capitals took damaging penalties — hooking and slashing minors by Ovechkin and two tripping infractions by Devante Smith-Pelly — the Penguins got four straight man-advantage opportunities. They scored on two of them to take a 3-2 lead into second intermission, and the Capitals were fortunate to be down by just a goal through 40 minutes. Pittsburgh had outshot Washington 18-5 in the second period.
The Capitals seemed mellow after their loss in Game 4, and Trotz had opted against making any changes to his lineup. But as the Capitals found themselves a period away from being pushed to the brink of elimination, Trotz started to make adjustments. He then moved Vrana to the first line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
Less than a minute into the third period, Vrana’s pass sprung Kuznetsov for a breakaway, the game-tying goal. He then delivered the game-winning one shortly after.
“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” Oshie said. “We know the history. We know what’s happened to us in the past. But right now, we have a lot of belief and a lot of trust in each other.”
Top-line Jakub Vrana: Go ahead and pencil Jakub Vrana into the Capitals’ first line for Game 6. Heck, use a Sharpie. With Devante Smith-Pelly filling in for the suspended Tom Wilson for the second consecutive game, the Capitals’ first line took as many penalties (4) as shots on goal through two periods on Saturday after Alex Ovechkin and Smith-Pelly were held without a shot in Game 4. Capitals coach Barry Trotz turned to speedy Jakub Vrana in the third period and the rookie responded, assisting on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-tying goal less than a minute into the final frame and scoring the game-winner off an assist from Ovechkin with 4:38 to play.
Advantage Capitals, history and all: Teams that have won Game 5 of a best-of-seven series tied two games apiece have gone on to win the series 202 out of 256 times (78.9 percent), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Capitals will have two chances to clinch their first spot in the Eastern Conference finals since 1998, with the first coming Monday at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. Forget about the fact that that Washington blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers the last time they were position to advance in 2015; this sure beats digging out of a 3-1 hole as the Capitals were forced to do against the Penguins in the second round in each of the last two years.
Braden Holtby was a beast: As good as Vrana was in the third period, Braden Holtby was Washington’s No. 1 star. He turned away 12 of 13 Penguins shots in the first period, including golden opportunities in front of the net by Derick Brassard and Sidney Crosby. After allowing a pair of power play goals in the second, he shut out Pittsburgh on eight shots in the third and finished with a series-high 36 saves.
Overcoming adversity and absences: The Capitals were thoroughly outplayed in the second period, as Pittsburgh outscored Washington 2-0 and outshot the home team 18-5. “You’re in your own building, with a chance to go up 3-2 against the two-time Stanley Cup champions,” NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said during the second intermission. “If that’s not motivating enough, then I don’t know what is. And then you come out in the second period and you completely lay an egg.” The Capitals redeemed themselves in the third period, despite playing the second half of the frame without Nicklas Backstrom.
Another power play goal: The Capitals’ power play unit hasn’t been as dominant as it was in the first round against Columbus, but Washington lit the lamp with the man advantage for a fourth straight game. John Carlson celebrated the birth of his second child on Friday with his third goal of the playoffs on a slap shot to tie the game late in the first period, joining some impressive company in the process.
And more breathing room: After a breathless game, Washington capped their victory with not one, but two empty-net goals. Lars Eller ended the scoring in the Capitals’ 6-3 with with Washington’s second empty-net goal of the night with five seconds remaining. Game 6 — the first of two chances to clinch the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 1998 — comes Monday in Pittsburgh.
Breathing room: T.J. Oshie’s empty-netter with 1:31 to play gave the Capitals a 5-3 lead and sent the Capital One Arena crowd into a tizzy. Barring a miraculous Penguins comeback, Washington will head back to Pittsburgh with a three-games-to-two lead.
Caps take the lead: A late lead for the Caps: Seconds after Braden Holtby denied Brian Dumoulin’s backhand attempt from point-blank range, the Capitals took off the other way. Alex Ovechkin skated into the Pittsburgh zone along the right side and found Jakub Vrana in front of the net. The 22-year-old rookie buried a shot past Matt Murray for his second goal of the playoffs and a 4-3 Washington lead with 4:38 to play.
Vrana, who was promoted to the top line mid-game, also assisted on the tying goal by Kuznetsov.
Nicklas Backstrom out: If the Capitals are to win Game 5, they may have to do it without Nicklas Backstrom. After taking only three faceoffs in the first two periods, Backstrom was missing from the Washington bench in the third. There was no immediate word about an injury to the Capitals center, who blocked a Jamie Oleksiak shot in the second period.
Caps keep the pressure on: The Capitals have doubled the Penguins in shots (10-5) in the first 10-plus minutes of the third period, but none of them have come from Alex Ovechkin, whose only three shots on goal came in the first 20 minutes of the game.
The ice is tilting: After the Penguins dominated the second period, the third has mostly belonged to the Capitals. It took Washington less than a minute to score the equalizer and Barry Trotz’s crew has an 8-4 advantage in shots with more than six minutes gone in the penalty-free final period of regulation.
And we’re tied: That was fast. Fifty-two seconds into the third period, Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game on a breakaway, going five-hole against Matt Murray after receiving a long pass from Jakub Vrana.
End Period 2: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
For the second consecutive game, the Capitals will be chasing the Penguins in the third period. Pittsburgh turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead with a pair of power play goals in the second period to quiet the Capital One Arena crowd. A Sidney Crosby hooking penalty put a premature end to the Penguins’ third power play of the frame, but the Capitals failed to score on their ensuing abbreviated man advantage. Pittsburgh dominated the second period, outshooting Washington 18-5.
Holtby is huge: The score would be a lot worse for Washington if Holtby weren’t standing tall in the net. He’s stopped all 11 of Pittsburgh’s shots in the slot and the crease at even strength and seven of nine (!) when his team has to kill a penalty. Patric Hornqvist has a team-high six high-danger chances, three on the power play and three at even strength.
Washington, meanwhile, has just three high-danger chances of their own, two of those at even strength
Update: Now the Penguins are on the power play. (Again.)
Penguins taking control: The Penguins weren’t on the power play, but it sure seemed like they were late in the second period, as Pittsburgh peppered Braden Holtby with shot after shot during an especially long shift spent almost entirely in the Capitals’ zone. With 4:38 remaining in the period, the Penguins have a 29-17 advantage in shots.
Caps shuffle the lines: It was a question entering the game how long Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz would stick with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line if things weren’t working in the Capitals’ favor. Midway through the second period, Jakub Vrana stepped in for Smith-Pelly opposite Alex Ovechkin. The results on the first shift were mixed.
Pens back in front: A save, another penalty, and a goal. Braden Holtby stoned Carl Hagelin on the first one-on-one breakaway of the game, gloving his slapper seven minutes into the second period. Another Penguins power play followed, as Devante Smith-Pelly was whistled for tripping Brian Dumoulin along the boards, and for the second consecutive time with the man advantage this period, Pittsburgh found the back of the net. Patric Hornqvist jammed a rebound between Holtby’s pads for his fifth goal of the playoffs and a 3-2 Penguins lead with 12:15 to play in the second.
Even again: Alex Ovechkin was assessed his second two-minute minute minor for slashing less than five minutes into the second period, and this time, the Penguins made Washington pay. Phil Kessel’s shot from the wing deflected off Sidney Crosby’s glove and past Braden Holtby for Crosby’s ninth goal of the postseason with 15:17 to play in the frame, knotting the score at 2-2.
Strong start to the second for the home team: Braden Holtby was awesome in the first period, with 12 saves on 13 Pittsburgh shots, including a couple of point-blank denials of Sidney Crosby and Derick Brassard. With Washington on the penalty kill for the first two minutes of the second period, Holtby wasn’t challenged. The Capitals had the only shot during Pittsburgh’s power play, a Lars Eller wrister that was handled with ease by Matt Murray.
Caps’ top line already looking better: Alex Ovechkin’s line is already improved from Game 4, where he personally had zero shots on net and the line was outchanced in the high-danger areas 7-0. During the first period of Game 5, Ovechkin was on the ice for John Carlson’s power-play goal and his line, featuring Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly, enjoy a 4-0 scoring-chance edge at even strength against whoever is defending them on the ice.
End Period 1: Capitals 2, Penguins 1
The Penguins scored the first goal in the first period, a fast-paced 20 minutes that featured 10 scoring chances in the first 10 minutes and a combined 26 shots on goal, but the Capitals scored a pair of goals 33 seconds apart in the final three minutes to take a one-goal lead into the break.
For a change, someone other than Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby scored for Pittsburgh, as Jamie Oleksiak tallied his first goal of the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin has already had a better offensive game for the Capitals than he did in Game 4, with three shots on goal in nearly eight minutes of ice time. His slashing penalty on Brian Dumoulin just before the horn will leave the Capitals shorthanded to start the second period, however.
And … the Caps lead: Thirty-three seconds after John Carlson evened the score, Brett Connolly’s shot bounced between Matt Murray’s pads to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead with 1:05 remaining in first period.
All even: A Dominik Simon tripping penalty with 2:49 to play in the period gave the Capitals their second power play and Washington made the most of the opportunity. Seconds after Washington was whistled for icing with the man advantage, John Carlson scored his third goal of the playoffs with a slap shot from the point.
Not ideal: The Capitals only managed one shot with the man advantage and the Penguins had the better scoring chance during the two minutes Chad Ruhwedel spent in the penalty box, a short-handed wrister by Tom Kuhnhackl that Braden Holtby turned away. With less than seven minutes to play in a back-and-forth first period, shots on goal are 10-7 Washington.
Special teams busy: Pittsburgh managed two shots on goal during its first power play, but Washington’s penalty-killing unit improved to 6-for-6 at home in killing off penalties. The Capitals’ own power play, which is 3-for-11 through four games, will get its first chance after Chad Ruhwedel was sent off for hooking Alex Ovechkin with 9:56 to play in the first period.
First power play to Pittsburgh: The Capitals have an 8-2 advantage in shots through the first seven minutes, but the Penguins have a 1-0 lead and the game’s first power play after Matt Niskanen was sent off for hooking with 12:45 to play in the first period. Pittsburgh is 3 for 13 with the man advantage this series.
Fast start … and a lead for the Penguins: The first two-plus minutes of Game 5 were every bit as exciting as the Kentucky Derby. Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t register a shot on goal in Game 4 for the first time in a playoff game since 2012, had a golden opportunity against Matt Murray one minute after the opening faceoff, but Murray denied the Capitals’ captain in front of the net.
A little more than a minute later, Jamie Oleksiak gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead with his first goal of the playoffs with a shot that deflected off Brooks Orpik and past Braden Holtby.
Penguins continue to have a problem with secondary scoring: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist account for eight of the team’s 10 goals scored, four of the Penguins’ nine primary assists and 22 out of their 45 high-danger chances. Forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang are the only other skaters on the team that have contributed goals in this series.
Washington, meanwhile, has seven forwards with at least one goal scored — Alex Ovechkin has three — with two blue liners, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, helping the cause as well.
Top-line troubles for Capitals: Washigton’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly wasn’t just bad offensviely in Game 4, it was completely outplayed by Pittsburgh’s top line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon. Those three Penguins managed a 7-0 edge in shot attempts in the slot or crease, also known as high-danger scoring chances, during 10 minutes of ice time when facing the Caps’ top trio at even strength. If that doesn’t improve quickly, Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz is going to have to find someone else to ride shotgun with the Russians until Wilson’s suspension is over.
One option to replace Smith-Pelly is speedy Jakub Vrana. The 22-year-old winger skated 94 minutes with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov during the regular season and outscored opponents 7-3 over that stretch. Plus, Vrana leads the team in total high-danger chances (seven) produced during this series, two more than Ovechkin and three more than Kuznetsov. He could be the boost this team needs to get the top line back on track.
Puck drop later due to Kentucky Derby: Quick programming note before we dive into the Game 5 breakdown, despite the 7 p.m. start time advertised by NBC, puck drop won’t happen until 7:25 p.m.
• Alex Ovechkin: For just the third playoff game of his career, Ovechkin didn’t record a shot on goal in Thursday’s Game 4. Washington’s top line seemed to miss Tom Wilson, and Capitals Coach Barry Trotz will have Devante Smith-Pelly in the right wing spot there again for Game 5, opting to give that trio more time to jell. Ovechkin has eight of the team’s 35 goals, with Washington dependent on his production to advance. Similarly, all 10 of the Penguins’ goals in this series have come with captain Sidney Crosby on the ice.
“Obviously it was not the best game for our line, but we move forward,” Ovechkin said.
“He’ll get his opportunities,” Trotz said. “There’s not too many times that he doesn’t get shots on net. I think a couple times he tried the extra move. The most dangerous thing with Alex is his shot, so put your shot in play and then go from there.”
• No line changes: In a tight-checking Game 4, Washington struggled to generate much offense, as the team’s one goal came on the power play. The Penguins did a better job limiting the Capitals’ odd-man rushes. Trotz decided to stick with the same lineup to start Game 5, though he acknowledged that a Plan B and Plan C are ready if Washington struggles offensively again.
“Gotta get to the hard areas more, gotta get the puck there, going to have to fight for those inches, fight harder to get into the interior spaces where you can get some of those pucks,” Trotz said before Saturday’s game. “We have to do a better job than last game. I thought they had more desperation in some areas. We’ll be ready to go tonight.”
Said Oshie: “In the [offensive] zone, it comes down to shooting around blocks and getting tips. I think you saw in the Columbus series, they were doing a good job blocking shots, so we started shooting for sticks and it worked out for us. That’s kind of how we have to adjust right now because their forwards and their [defense] are doing a good job of taking away shot lanes and blocking shots.”
• Good start: The Capitals have scored the first goal in eight of their 10 playoff games so far, and that’s especially important against Pittsburgh. The Penguins are tough to wrestle the lead away from because they thrive on capitalizing on mistakes with odd-man rushes when another team is making an offensive push with more players joining the attack. In every game they’ve lead after the first period this postseason, they’ve won. They’re 4-1-0 when leading after the second period.
Shane Gersich: Trotz was encouraged from what he saw from the rookie in his playoff debut, especially Gersich’s early scoring chance that went off goaltender Matt Murray’s pads. With Wilson still suspended, Gersich will be on the fourth line again Saturday night, potentially a factor with his strong speed. Gersich played less than six minutes in Game 4.
“I would’ve loved to see him score on his first opportunity,” Trotz said. “He had a real good look. He did well. Shane, when you’re sitting there watching and you haven’t played a lot of National Hockey League games and you haven’t played in a playoff game and you’ve been around the intensity of the playoffs, and then all of a sudden the coach calls your name and you’re the guy going on the ice, I thought he was pretty poised. He did a real good job. You can see he’s got a real good skill set.”
Matt Murray: The Capitals seemed to be targeting Murray’s glove side through the first three games, and though the goaltender has looked shaky at times this postseason with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage, he was steady in Game 4, allowing just one goal. A year ago, Murray was injured and Marc-Andre Fleury was the difference in the second-round series against the Capitals. Fleury is now the starter in Vegas and Murray doesn’t need to look over his shoulder, but that also means all the pressure is on the 23-year-old to backstop the Penguins to a third-straight Stanley Cup.
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Devante Smith-Pelly
Chandler Stephenson-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Shane Gersich-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratches: Andre Burakovsky (upper body), Tom Wilson (suspension), Travis Boyd, Brian Pinho, Nathan Walker
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Scratches: Jakub Jerabek, Madison Bowey
Braden Holtby (starter)
Scratch: Pheonix Copley
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Dominik Simon
Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist
Conor Sheary-Riley Sheahan-Phil Kessel
Tom Kuhnhackl-Derick Brassard-Bryan Rust
Scratches: Carter Rowney, Zach Aston-Reese (concussion, broken jaw)
Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang
Olli Maatta-Justin Schultz
Jamie Oleksiak-Chad Ruhwedel
Scratch: Matt Hunwick
Matt Murray (starter)