• Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in overtime to put the Capitals into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. (Read more)
• Washington has shown its resiliency throughout this rocky season. (Read more)
PITTSBURGH — The scene of the Washington Capitals vanquishing a 20-year-old ghost saw goaltender Braden Holtby skating up the ice, his glove and blocker thrown upward in celebration. Half the Capitals’ bench exulted around him. The other half mobbed Evgeny Kuznetsov, the hero who had smoothly skated up to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net and buried his breakaway opportunity in overtime.
Washington’s two celebratory huddles eventually merged. Captain Alex Ovechkin looked up and exhaled, a career-long weight suddenly lifted. A grinning Kuznetsov hugged Holtby, and Holtby hugged him back. Equipment managers on the bench were jumping up and down with arms around each other. The Capitals are going to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1998 after Monday’s 2-1 overtime win.
“Thank God it’s happened,” Ovechkin said. “Move forward.”
Looking back would reveal a tortured playoff history. In Ovechkin’s 13-season career, since he was drafted first overall by the Capitals in 2004, Washington had never gotten past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This second-round series marked the 11th all-time postseason meeting between the Capitals and the Penguins, and Pittsburgh had won nine of the previous 10.
The Capitals had the best regular season record in the NHL the past two years, but they were still bested by Penguins teams that went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. But this less-experienced and less-talented club was quietly confident even as external expectations were lower because offseason salary cap constraints and an expansion draft had weakened the roster.
“All day, I knew we were going to win,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “This group has a lot of resiliency.”
The most improbable part of this run so far came in the series-clinching Game 6, when Washington’s lineup was without three of its regular top-six forwards, including top center Nicklas Backstrom, who injured his right hand in Saturday’s Game 5. The Capitals played five rookies, including two who made their playoff debuts Monday night.
On the bench, the head coach, Trotz, remains without a contract for next season even as he has already guided this team further than it has gone in 20 years. In net, Holtby wasn’t even the starting goaltender when the postseason started less than a month ago. But through the personnel changes and the occasional off-ice drama, this team grew stronger as the season went on, and now it has a chance to continue its run.
“I have a lot of faith in the team,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “You could really sense, in the end of the season and how we played in the first round, there was a lot of grit and determination. We didn’t panic at all. We did have our moment in the first period when we said, ‘Do we have five rookies playing tonight?’ We thought our window had closed and we were an old team.”
Last season was the second of what General Manager Brian MacLellan had called a two-year, all-in window. This campaign would begin a new chapter after the Capitals parted with two top-six forwards and three defensemen in a difficult offseason. But Washington’s core of veterans remained, and the heartbreak of Washington’s second-round loss to Pittsburgh a year ago had stayed with them — and then it perhaps fueled them.
“They probably needed to go through some of this,” Trotz said. “. . . I think toughness is more about when you get knocked down, are you going to get up again? This group got up again, and that’s where we started when we started this journey in training camp. We had to back off a little bit and let them heal a little bit. And then we got it together.
“A lot of it comes from the sort of pain and suffering of the past that’s made them stronger.”
After Washington won Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, forward T.J. Oshie warned that Game 6 in Pittsburgh would be “one of the toughest games any of us have ever faced.” It got significantly tougher with Backstrom out of the lineup, especially with Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan able to control matchups in his home arena and expose the Capitals’ thin forward depth with a lineup of superstars including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
Recognizing that this Washington lineup wouldn’t be able to win a game trading chances with Pittsburgh’s skill, the Capitals let the game take on a low-event, tight-checking pace. That made Holtby’s night easier: He saw just 22 shots all game.
Throughout the series, Holtby had significantly outperformed his counterpart in Matt Murray, who was shaky at times for the Penguins.
The Capitals took advantage of that 2:13 into the second period Monday, when rookie Nathan Walker skated behind Pittsburgh’s cage to set up Alex Chiasson in the right circle. Chiasson’s shot beat Murray short side, a soft goal allowed to Washington’s fourth line. PPG Paints Arena grew quiet and apprehensive as the Capitals got a lead with their depleted lineup. Of all the possible heroes, Walker had been waived by two NHL teams earlier this season and hadn’t played since December, and Chiasson didn’t have a contract offer when he came to Washington’s training camp on a professional tryout. This was his first point of the postseason.
“To not have Nick [Backstrom] in our lineup, you know, he’s irreplaceable as a player,” Holtby said. “Not any one single person can replace him. It takes a group effort, and we knew that.”
Midway through the second period, Kuznetsov lost a defensive-zone faceoff to Crosby, and defenseman Kris Letang’s slap shot deflected off Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson as it changed directions to beat Holtby and tie the game. The crowd was buzzing again. The Capitals’ bench was cool.
And then, 5:27 into overtime, there was stunned silence. The only sounds were on the ice, where the Capitals celebrated. Ovechkin lifted both arms and hung his head back, a lasting image for how a 20-year cloud on a franchise and a player had finally passed. In the locker room, after the hoots and hugging had stopped, Kuznetsov found himself at a loss for words.
“It’s like something’s over, you know?” he said.
At last: For the first time in 20 years, a D.C. team in one of the four major pro sports is moving on to the conference finals. Let that sink in. The Capitals were the last to do it, in 1998, when they eliminated the Senators in five games in the second round and then ousted the Sabres in six games to clinch their only Eastern Conference title in franchise history. With Evgeny Kuznetsov’s breakaway goal less than six minutes into overtime, Washington improved to 2-9 all-time in postseason series against the Penguins; the Capitals’ only other triumph against the Black and Gold came in 1994. Sidney Crosby’s perfect playoff record against Alex Ovechkin, who assisted on the game-winning goal? Over. The Penguins’ nine-series playoff win streak? Finito. The D.C. Sports Troll? Probably licking his wounds like Brad Marchand licks opponents.
Doing it shorthanded: Nicklas Backstrom, a game-time decision after suffering an undisclosed injury in Game 5, arrived at PPG Paints Arena with his right hand heavily wrapped and did not play in Game 6. Washington’s do-it-all veteran, who ranked second on the team in points with 13 through 11 games, appeared to be in pain after blocking a shot with his hand in the first period of Saturday’s win and missed most of the third period. Backstrom’s absence, combined with Andre Burakovsky’s injury and Tom Wilson’s suspension, left the Capitals without three of their regular top-six forwards. No worries, mate; Washington still had Alex, as in Alex Chiasson, who scored his first goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead. Chiasson’s goal was assisted by rookie Nathan Walker, who was making his playoff debut and became the first Australian to score a postseason point.
Road warriors: The Capitals said they were approaching Game 6 with a “Game 7 mentality” and it paid off, as they avoided a dreaded Game 7 back home in D.C. by finishing off the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. Washington has clinched its last three series wins in Game 6 on the road and improved to 5-1 away from Capital One Arena during the playoffs.
Looking ahead: Tampa Bay, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed and the league’s highest-scoring team, awaits the Capitals in the next round. The Lightning made quick work of the Bruins in their second round series with four straight wins after losing Game 1 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four years. It’s the teams’ first meeting in the playoffs since 2011, when Tampa Bay swept Washington in the second round.
FINAL: Capitals 2, Penguins 1 (OT)
At last: Game over. Series over. For the first time in 20 years, a D.C. team in one of the four major pro sports is moving on to the conference finals. Let that sink in. The Capitals were the last to do it, in 1998, when they eliminated the Senators in five games in the second round and then ousted the Sabres in six games to clinch their only Eastern Conference title in franchise history. With Evgeny Kuznetsov’s breakaway goal less than six minutes into overtime, Washington improved to 2-9 all-time in postseason series against the Penguins; the Capitals’ only other triumph against the Black and Gold came in 1994. Sidney Crosby’s perfect playoff record against Alex Ovechkin, who assisted on the game-winning goal? Over. The Penguins’ nine-series playoff win streak? Finito.
The D.C. Sports Troll? Probably licking his wounds like Brad Marchand licks opponents.
Carlson denied: T.J. Oshie feathered a perfect lead pass to John Carlson, who was streaking down the middle of the Penguins’ zone five minutes into overtime, but Matt Murray made a difficult save to extend the game.
OT chances for both teams: “No shot is a bad shot in overtime,” NBC Sports Network analyst Patrick Sharp said during intermission after the third period, and neither team missed a chance to put a puck net early in the first extra session. Both Braden Holtby and Matt Murray were challenged in the first few minutes, with Holtby stopping a stuff attempt by Riley Sheahan and Murray gloving a shot from the point by Matt Niskanen. The puck luck for the goalies is all even after Tom Kuhnhackl’s wrist shot went over Holtby’s right shoulder but deflected off the post.
Capitals still going strong: Washington kept its foot on the gas in the final period of regulation. The Capitals outshot Pittsburgh 9 to 5 and had a 7 to 2 edge in scoring chances in the final frame. Jakub Vrana leads the team in even-strength scoring chances after regulation (four) followed by four skaters, including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, with two each.
Nathan Walker has also had an impressive postseason debut. The kid from Down Under has the primary assist on the team’s only goal plus his line enjoys a 6 to 0 scoring chance advantage despite playing only 7 minutes and 33 seconds.
End Period 3: Capitals 1, Penguins 1
Despite a frantic final three minutes, which included a Sidney Crosby deflection on goal that Braden Holtby turned away and a scramble in front of Matt Murray on the final shift of regulation, we’re headed to overtime for the first time in the series.
If you’re curious, Kevin Shattenkirk gave the Capitals a 3-2 win with a power play overtime goal in Game 3 of last year’s second-round against the Penguins, the last time these teams required more than 60 minutes to decide a game in the playoffs.
Save-for-save: Braden Holtby matched Matt Murray at the other end, turning away a knuckling shot from Carl Hagelin and stopping a bad-angle attempt from Patric Hornqvist. Murray then kicked away a lightning-quick shot by Jakub Vrana. With 5:45 to play in the third, the score was tied and both goalies were on their games.
Ovi update: Alex Ovechkin has nine even-strength shot attempts but just four have made it to the net.
Big saves: Matt Murray has played one of his better games of the series with the Penguins on the brink of elimination. In the last three minutes, the Penguins’ goalie has squeezed the pads to take away the five-hole on an Alex Ovechkin shot off a drop pass from Chandler Stephenson, stoned Alex Chiasson in front of the net and gloved another attempt by Jay Beagle. The Capitals are getting great chances. Can they solve Murray to break the tie?
Defensive struggle: The Capitals had a rare two-on-one rush with less than 14 minutes remaining, but Alex Ovechkin’s pass intended for Evgeny Kuznetsov missed the mark. Shots were still 17-15 Washington with 8:37 gone by in the third period.
Breathe: With 13:49 to play in regulation the Capitals have the only two shots of the third period in a 1-1 game. T.J. Oshie whistled another shot over the net, as Washington controlled play for the first four minutes of the fast-paced frame. There hasn’t been a penalty on either team since the first period.
Kessel and Malkin is a good match for playoffs: Coach Sullivan skating Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin together didn’t pay a lot of dividends during the regular season, they were outscored 30 to 26 and had a 130 to 102 disadvantage on high-danger chances, but that has changed this postseason. Kessel and Malkin have outscored opponents 2 to 1 with a 8 to 1 advantage on shots in the slot and crease. They have two scoring chances in the second period.
End Period 2: Capitals 1, Penguins 1
The Penguins saved their best chance of the second period, besides their one goal, for last. During the final seconds of the frame, Evgeni Malkin backhanded a pass to Justin Schultz in front of the net, but Braden Holtby got just enough of Schultz’s one-timer with his left arm to keep the game tied 1-1.
A few minutes earlier, Matt Murray stopped Evgeny Kuznetsov on the doorstep after the Capitals forward appeared poised to give Washington the lead. Shots are 15-15 through 40 minutes. Buckle up.
Get fired up, Pittsburgh: In an effort to further fire up the home crowd, Steelers offensive lineman Al Villanueva reportedly ripped his shirt off and doused himself with beer during a stoppage in play late in the second period. I’d suggest that Villanueva is doing too much in an attempt to replicate the beer-guzzling, catfish-chomping routine of Tennessee Titans players at Nashville Predators games, but then Pittsburgh defeated the Predators in last year’s Stanley Cup finals, so carry on.
Buckle up: The action has picked up late in the second period, which might not be great news for the shorthanded Capitals. A Conor Sheary shot deflected over Braden Holtby and behind the net during a scary sequence for Washington, which was followed by a Matt Murray save on a Christian Djoos chance at the other end. With 4:28 to play in the period, shots are 14-13 Penguins.
Penguins tie it up on Letang goal and things are a lot different at PPG Arena: With 8:08 remaining in the second period, the Penguins tied the game 1-1 on a Kris Letgang slap shot from the point. Letang’s third goal of the postseason came after a faceoff win by Sidney Crosby and just as NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury was commenting on the Penguins’ lack of energy. The energy has most definitely returned to the PPG Paints Arena crowd. And they’re channeling some of it into chants of Holt-by, Holt-by, Holt-by.
The Pens are making moves: With Washington up 1-0, Pittsburgh is juggling its lines to try to get the tying marker.
Ouch, Ovi: Jakub Vrana’s breakaway chance came a couple of minutes after officials missed a blatant slash by Kris Letang on Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals’ captain was later shown wincing and shaking his right hand on the Washington bench, but he would return to the game. The Capitals are already without one of their best players in Nicklas Backstrom due to a right hand injury. They can’t afford to lose another and bank on their other Alex (Chiasson) to continue to carry the offensive load.
Murray keeps the Penguins close: With less than 14 minutes remaining in the second period, Washington made a bid to double its lead, but Matt Murray made his best save of the game, turning away Jakub Vrana’s shot with his blocker on a breakaway. The Capitals have four of the first five shots in period and NBC Sports Network play-by-play man Doc Emrick reports the home crowd is getting restless.
The fourth line strikes and the Capitals lead 1-0: Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead 2:13 into the second period by banging a one-timer past Matt Murray’s glove side. Australian rookie Nathan Walker, who is appearing in his first career playoff game, picked up the primary assist on the goal. The team that has scored first is 3-2 in the series, though the first goal tonight feels especially important given the slow pace of play thus far.
Advantage Washington?: During the intermission, NBC Sports Network analyst Patrick Sharp said he liked what he saw from the Capitals.
“I think it was a great period for Washington,” Sharp said. “The reason why it benefits them to keep the game scoreless, or 0-0, later into the game is they don’t have to chase the game. Right now, they’re one shot away from potentially advancing in the series. Pittsburgh isn’t a team you want to open the game up with. They have too much talent and ability over there. With a couple key guys missing from Washington, I think that was a pretty good period for the Caps.”
Despite all of their talent and ability, the Penguins had eight turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Penguins keeping Ovechkin bottled up on power play: Washington’s power play is considered one of the most dangerous in the league, but it becomes less so when Alex Ovechkin is neutralized, and that’s what the Penguins’ penalty killers have been able to do.
Ovechkin has no goals and just five shot attempts while skating over 20 minutes with the man advantage in this series; none of those attempts occurred in his “office,” on or near the blocker-side faceoff dot.
Instead, the Capitals have been left to rely on shots from John Carlson (team-high 17 shot attempts) at the point but those have not created any rebound opportunities (though they did create a goal in Game 5). And with Backstrom out, Lars Eller and Travis Boyd are manning the half wall, two players who won’t garner enough defensive attention to create space for Ovechkin along the left side.
Instead, it will be up to Oshie and Kuznetsov to create chances from the slot and near the crease.
End Period 1: Capitals 0, Penguins 0
T.J. Oshie had Penguins goalie Matt Murray beat to his glove side — that’s sort of been a theme for the Capitals this series — but Oshie’s shot rang off the post, which is one of the main reasons Washington and Pittsburgh are even at 0-0 after 20 minutes.
Braden Holtby had a little something to do with the scoreless tie, too. Holtby made six saves in the period, none more difficult than the pad stop he made to deny Patric Hornqvist late in the frame. Murray finished the period with seven saves.
Back to even strength: With 8:35 to play in the first period, Washington’s Michal Kempny was assessed a two-minute minor for tripping Jake Guentzel, giving the Penguins’ high-octane power play its first chance of the night. Pittsburgh entered the game 5 for 18 in the series with the man advantage and had a pair of power-play goals in each of the last two games, but Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty-killing unit had a relatively easy time killing off the Penguins’ first chance of the game.
Nervous energy?: NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May said before the game that one of the keys for the Capitals was to get through the first 10 minutes unscathed. They’ve done that, and the PPG Paints Arena crowd has been relatively quiet with neither team generating much of anything offensively. With 11 minutes to play in the first period, shots were 3-2 Washington. The start to this one has been a far cry from the first 20 minutes of Game 5, when the Capitals and Penguins had 13 shots apiece.
NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire agreed the Penguins looked nervous and worried about making a mistake in the early stages of Game 6, while Washington had played well despite little to show for it offensively.
Ping!: Washington’s best chance on a somewhat sloppy power play that featured an icing by the Capitals won’t show up in the box score as a shot on goal, because T.J. Ohsie’s shot past a sliding Tom Kuhnhackl hit the post and deflected harmlessly away. Oshie would register Washington’s first official shot on goal after the power play ended, but Matt Murray scooped it up for his first save.
First power play to the Capitals: Neither team registered a shot on goal in the first four minutes, but the first man-advantage went to Washington after Olli Maatta was sent off for high-sticking with 16:01 to play in the period. The Capitals’ power play unit is 4 for 14 in the series and has scored in each of the last four games.
An early chance for the Penguins: A Devante Smith-Pelly turnover in the Capitals’ zone two minutes into the game left the puck on the stick of Phil Kessel in front of Braden Holtby. With Brooks Orpik and Michal Kempny closing in on the Penguins’ forward, Holtby kicked the puck just far enough away from Kessel to deny him a shot on goal.
Will Holtby stay hot?: While Braden Holtby has usually been excellent in the playoffs, the opposing goaltender has usually been better. Not so this year against Pittsburgh. Holtby has a save percentage of .915, with just two of 50 high-danger chances at even strength getting by him. Murray, meanwhile, has stopped 124 of 138 shots faced (an .899 save percentage) with six goals allowed on 30 chances in the high-danger areas at even strength.
Who can step up for Caps?: Washington, like Pittsburgh, isn’t getting much production outside of its top line. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have been on the ice for six of the team’s 13 even-strength goals in this series. Brett Connolly and Lars Eller have chipped in two even-strength goals from the third line and Nicklas Backstrom’s line, featuring T.J. Ohsie and Chandler Stephenson, has been on the ice for just one. Matt Niskanen is the team’s only defenseman with an even-strength goal scored in the series.
With Backstrom out this becomes more important than ever and, luckily, there are some encouraging numbers behind the second line of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie, albeit in a small sample of playing time. These three skated 27 minutes together during the regular season, and while they didn’t score a goal they did generate 16 scoring chances, nine from the high-danger areas, while allowing just 14. They also have two scoring chances in just 1 minute and 22 seconds of ice time in the playoffs.
Nicklas Backstrom out: Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom will not play in Monday night’s Game 6 against Pittsburgh after sustaining what appears to be an injury to his right hand in Game 5. NBCSN cameras captured Backstrom walking into PPG Paints Arena with a wrapped right hand, and shortly after the team announced he would miss the game and is day-to-day with an upper body injury. Washington’s lineup will be revamped and will include 24-year-old Nathan Walker, who is expected to become the first Australian to play in an NHL playoff game.
Already missing Andre Burakovsky (injury) and Tom Wilson (suspension), Washington will try to secure the second-round series without three of its usual top-six forwards. That attrition has given the expected lineup a very different look from the team’s usual line combinations:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Chandler Stephenson
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Travis Boyd-Devante Smith-Pelly
Nathan Walker-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Washington’s PK is not okay: The Caps’ penalty kill hasn’t been great in this series (72 percent) and it has allowed 17 high-danger chances, four of those resulting in goals, to the Penguins through five games. Plus, Pittsburgh went 2 for 9 in the slot and the crease with the man advantage in Game 5. The Capitals have to limit those opportunities by playing disciplined hockey while also continuing to keep the Penguins’ forwards locked down during even strength.
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs: