Best encouraging stat: After winning Game 5 following a 3-1 series deficit, the Caps have gone on to force Game 7 three times in their history (1988, 2008 and 2009). They won twice to advance, with all three Game 6 victories coming in the first round.
Best reclamation: Caps fans took to the steps of the Portrait Gallery after the game to celebrate the big win in the same way that opposing fans, particularly those from Pittsburgh, have in recent years.
Best closer: Braden Holtby saved all 12 shots on goal in the third period Saturday, after a five-save third-period shutout in Game 4. The Capitals goalie won the Vezina Trophy last season as the league’s best goaltender, and again is a finalist for the award this season. He’ll need a few more clean frames in Game 6 for Washington to keep its Stanley Cup dreams alive.
Best owner celebration: Capitals owner Ted Leonsis let a fist pump fly in his suite after the final horn sounded. We all feel you, Ted.
Best onslaught: Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin put the Caps in front, with a pair of all-important goals 27 seconds apart in the third period. The Verizon Center crowd came alive after Kuznetsov slipped a no-angle shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, and then exploded when the Capitals captain launched into the upper left corner for the two-goal advantage.
Best cameo: The hero from D.C.’s most recent championship, former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, is in town and supporting the home team.
Best hope: Two minutes 49 seconds into the third period, Nicklas Backstrom rifled a shot from the left crease to the right post and over the shoulder of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Capitals tie it up, 2-2.
Best off-topic T-shirt: This guy was all-too-happy to celebrate Backstrom’s tying goal in the third period.
Worst lack of urgency: Nearly two thirds of the way through the second period with their season on the line, the Capitals only had four shots on goal.
Worse crowd noise: Down again in an elimination game, an all-too-familiar position for Capitals fans, the crowd at Verizon Center was having trouble finding the energy to will the home team back into this game and series.
Worst puck luck: Phil Kessel put the Penguins back in front on the power play early in the second period after several failed Capitals clears. His shot bounced off of the post, then Holtby’s pad, then off the post again and in.
Best equalizer: Andre Burakovsky scored his first goal of these playoffs (and his first in the postseason since the opening game of last year’s series vs. the Penguins) with 30 seconds left in the third. It’s the first time in this series that one of the bottom-six forwards scored. The goal came after Alex Ovechkin was reshuffled back to the top line with his usual linemates, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
Worst missed opportunity: With a chance to tie things up late in the first period, the Capitals spent their next power play struggling to maintain puck possession in the offensive zone and mustered only one shot on goal in two minutes.
Worst break: The Penguins took advantage of a missed defensive assignment, and Carl Hagelin found himself with the puck in the slot and beat goalie Braden Holtby to open the scoring. The first team to score in every game this series has gone on to win.
Worst invasion: Penguins fans are known to show up in droves at Verizon Center, and Saturday was no different. After Hagelin’s goal, chants of “Holt-by! Holt-by!” rained down on the Caps goaltender.
Best start: True to form in this series, the Capitals sustained pressure in the Pittsburgh zone during the opening stages of the first period. Washington had five shots on goal in the first 6:13 of the game to the Penguins’ zero, including three during a power play following a Evgeni Malkin hooking penalty.
Worst news (for D.C. fans): Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby is back in the lineup after missing Game 4 with a concussion. Crosby took part in full-contact practice Friday morning, according to the Post-Gazette, and started as a member of the top line alongside Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist.
Best shakeup: Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said following Game 2 that the team has to “go to places that [they] haven’t gone before” in order to win the series. Trotz has made lineup changes ahead of the last two games, and Saturday night, did so again, bumping Alex Ovechkin to the third line with Tom Wilson and Lars Eller.
Best omen: In the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals are 3-0 in Game 5s at home when trailing in a series 3-1. They won in 2008 against the Flyers, 2009 against the Rangers and last year against these same Penguins in Game 5s.
Game 5: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd place, 50-21-11, 111 points)
Date and time: Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
Location: Verizon Center
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Penguins 2
Game 1 at Washington: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 2 at Washington: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
Game 3 at Pittsburgh: Capitals 3, Penguins 2 (OT)
Game 4 at Pittsburgh: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 6 at Pittsburgh (if necessary): Monday, TBD (TBD)
Game 7 at Washington (if necessary): Wednesday, TBD (TBD)
>> So what, exactly, can the Caps lean on heading into a do-or-die game? Well for starters, this is a group that’s been known to possess a fun-loving identity. Maybe they could start by figuring out how best to channel that. “If we had the magic secret, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Braden Holtby. “That’s life. That’s human nature. It’s about how hard you fight through it in the end. I think we’re on the right track.” The Caps just need to loosen up a bit. But can they?
>> The Caps are on the ropes. A loss on Saturday night will end another promising season early, and as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Perhaps that’s why Alex Ovechkin, team captain, skated with the third line during Friday’s potential final practice of the season. “We all know we’re not doing as good as we want, so we kind of expected some changes to be made,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “We didn’t know what they were going to be.”
>> Speaking of stars, Pittsburgh’s brightest one, Sidney Crosby, was on the ice Friday, skating with his teammates for his first full practice since suffering a concussion Monday. Crosby is still “day-to-day,” per Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan. But the coach also declared Crosby a game-time decision for Saturday night. So now, we wait until just before the opening faceoff to find out whether Crosby will make his return.
>> Words of advice for Caps fans from Braden Holtby’s “sports psych guy in Edmonton” John Stevenson, who has worked with Holtby since the defending Vezina Trophy winner was 14 years old: “When they’re back in Washington, just be the biggest, loudest, noisiest building cheering. You control the controllable. You’re bringing your focus to the here and now.”
>> Sidney Crosby skated at the Penguins’ practice facility Thursday morning, but there is still no timetable for his return from a concussion sustained Monday. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby is still “in the process” and is day-to-day as of now.
>> True, Washington is out-shooting the Penguins in the series and did so in lopsided fashion in the Game 4 loss. But perhaps the most surprising aspect about this year’s playoff debacle is the different ways the Capitals are beating themselves — like Dmitry Orlov kicking the puck into his own net.
>> Here’s something Dan Steinberg never ever wants to hear again for the rest of his life: The Capitals played great, dominated possession and registered 437 more shot attempts than their playoff opponent, but they lost because hockey is weird and random lol.
>> It’s a terrible state of existence when every odd bounce that works against you has to be woven into the tapestry as part of some generations-long drama — and a depressing one at that. But it is the very existence of the Capitals, and who knows when — or if — that will change. Welcome, then, Dmitry Orlov and his right skate to this disaster. They’re part of the story now, like it or not, writes Barry Svrluga.
>> Alex Ovechkin is blaming himself. “I think I didn’t control the puck well,” Ovechkin said. “You know, I make stupid decisions. Unfortunately, it happened, and we have to forget it and we have to move forward. Every game right now for us is [a Game 7], so we have to win three to move forward. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for that.”
>> This was the all-out, all-hands-on-deck effort the Penguins needed with Sidney Crosby out with a concussion. The Penguins were without two regular forwards — Conor Sheary also had a concussion — and they responded with a 3-2 win that will be remembered for the player who wasn’t on the ice.
>> The most significant outcome of Matt Niskanen’s cross-check of Sidney Crosby is that Crosby missed Game 4, and potentially more time after it. But it also gives more layers to a series between two rivals, manifesting in odd, passed-along quotes and, quite possibly, ramped-up physicality once the puck drops for Game 4. Most recent: Phil Kessel called Jay Beagle an idiot for something the Capitals’ fourth-line center didn’t even say. “It hurts. I’m hurt deeply,” Beagle said in jest. “I don’t know, if he wants to settle it, we could always play some Mario Kart. He knows where to find me. We’ll take it from there.”
>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have often been pitted against each other as the NHL’s two brightest stars for the past decade. But even on opposite teams in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, Ovechkin took no joy in hearing Crosby suffered a concussion on Monday night and is out for at least Game 4. “It’s hard to see a player go down, and it’s hard to see he get hurt,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a player you don’t want that stuff to happen, so it’s sad. I hope he’s going to be fine and come back in the series.”
>> If this past week has felt particularly exhausting and exhilarating, abusive and absurd, there’s a rational explanation, writes Dan Steinberg. We’re currently in the middle of a nine-day stretch in which either the Wizards or Capitals will play a postseason game every day. That has never before happened this late in the season, not in this town. It’s a foolish marathon none of us has ever attempted, and we’re running it without knowing whether finishers will receive laurel wreaths or whoopee cushions.
>> Canadian Broadcasting Corp. hockey commentator Don Cherry weighed in on the cross-check from Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen that left Penguins captain Sidney Crosby with a concussion. Cherry said he was “really upset” over the incident in Monday’s second-round playoff game, which Capitals Coach Barry Trotz described as a hockey play and will cause Crosby to miss at least Wednesday’s Game 4. Cherry also said Niskanen, who will not face supplemental discipline from the league, should have been suspended.
>> Human decency should mean it doesn’t make a difference whether it was Sidney Crosby or Matt Cullen or Tom Kuhnhackl barely able to move, unsteady on his feet, needing help just to get up. But in the way we judge news, and the way we weigh importance, and in the level of attention paid to hockey, it does matter, writes Barry Svrluga. It mattered for the immediacy of Game 3, in which the Capitals beat the Crosby-less Penguins in overtime. It matters for Game 4, because now the Penguins are not just undermanned, but they will be without the player who had been — comfortably — the best player in the series, which makes sense given he’s the best player on the planet.
>> The Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s scary history of head injuries were linked long before the Penguins’ captain lay on the ice late in the first period on Monday after taking a cross-check to the face from Matt Niskanen. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed everyone’s worst fears and added a new chapter to that history when he announced Tuesday that Crosby suffered a concussion on the play and will miss at least Game 4 of the second-round playoff series.
>> There is no one way to replace the superstar presence and skill of Sidney Crosby. There probably aren’t two ways, or even three. But if the Penguins are to smoothly transition from a Crosby-led lineup to a Crosby-less one, Evgeni Malkin will need to be at the center of that effort.
>> Sidney Crosby, a transcendent star with a history of head injuries, leaving the game was a gruesome scene, and anyone with a drop of humanity felt terribly: for Crosby, for his team and for the sport. But was the contact dirty and premeditated? Or was it an unfortunate hockey play deserving nothing more than a minor penalty? You can guess how that debate went. The stakes aren’t high in sports, and the consequences of tribal behavior during a second-round series probably aren’t significant. But this isn’t just about sports, writes Dan Steinberg.
>> Losing one of the game’s best players in Sidney Crosby is a huge loss for Pittsburgh, but this would not be the first time the Penguins have had to deal with his absence. The problem? They haven’t coped that well without Crosby. The star center and member of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players missed the start of the season with a concussion and has a history of them throughout his career, losing 68 games to head and neck injuries during 2011 and 2012. And since 2011, the Penguins have scored 4.6 goals per 60 minutes overall when Crosby is in the lineup, including the playoffs, more than double their production when Crosby has been unavailable (2.2).
>> Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen won’t face any supplemental discipline from the NHL for his high cross-check on Sidney Crosby. The Penguins captain had to be helped off the ice, and he didn’t return to the game.
>> The biggest topic after Washington’s madcap, 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins in Game 3 Monday night had less to do with any goals or saves than with a first-period hit: the high cross-check that knocked Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of the game. And it led to a contentious exchange between Caps Coach Barry Trotz and Rob Rossi, a Pittsburgh reporter. The writer later went on to suggest the Capitals discussed attempting to injure Crosby during their Saturday night closed-door meeting.
>> Rob Rossi wasn’t the only Pittsburgh reporter who suggested that Matt Niskanen’s cross-check was malicious. “That’s how you want to win, Washington? Really?” was the headline Tuesday morning on former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic’s subscription-based site, DKPittsburghSports.com. Meanwhile, Kevin Gorman, a current Tribune-Review columnist, wrote that the Capitals “resorted to one of hockey’s cheapest tricks: take out the opponent’s best player.”
>> NBC’s Mike Milbury, for his part, said “it looked to be a reactionary play” by Matt Niskanen. Meanwhile, Niskanen insisted the play wasn’t intentional, but the Penguins are understandably not happy. Penguins center Nick Bonino said, “Just what we saw, he hits him straight in the head with his fist or stick.” Crosby’s injury could very well shift the entire tide of this series.
>> Look back on this wildest playoff game — a three-hour action flick consisting of nothing but explosions and car crashes — and what you see is some bizarro anti-Caps universe, writes Dan Steinberg. This must be how the other side lives. It was, in the end, first the embodiment and then the opposite of those previous Capitals catastrophes. With this pivotal season on life support, Washington watched an opponent ask itself a familiar question: How did we lose that game, when we had a chance to finish this team? And how do we now bounce back?
>> We’ll let this quote speak for itself: “I said a lot of bad words, and I apologize for them,” CSN play-by-play man Joe Beninati said. “I said a lot of bad words in the last three minutes of regulation, I really did, but this [win] shows that this team is a little bit different this year. There’s resiliency here. There’s a strong-willed approach.”
>> Before Game 3, Kevin Shattenkirk had a minus-seven rating in eight playoff games, which is the worst on the team, and Trotz acknowledged the defenseman’s play needs to improve. “I think if you talk to Kevin, he would admit that he can play better,” Trotz said Sunday. “I know he can play better.”
>> You would have to live somewhere between optimism and insanity to predict the Caps will win this series. NHL teams that drop the first two games of a seven-game set at home go on to lose about 80 percent of the time. The Caps have lost six straight games in Pittsburgh. Still, Washington’s only chance, it seems to Dan Steinberg, is to ease back into the team it’s been for the past two years.
>> The doors to the Capitals’ locker room stayed shut for more than 10 minutes following Saturday night’s 6-2 loss that landed the team in a two-games-to-none hole. The dire situation, a season full of expectation suddenly on the brink, prompted a players-only meeting after the game. “I think what was said in this room are things that our leaders needed to say, and are things that people needed to hear,” T.J. Oshie told reporters.
>> After giving up four goals in two periods in Game 2, Barry Trotz pulled Braden Holtby from the game.
>> The Penguins have a propensity for stepping in front of shots. And so far, it’s keeping the Capitals out of the net, but it also puts players in danger. “It was the same last year,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “They were blocking a lot of shots. Somehow you’ve got to go through them. You have to crowd the net and get some second chances.”
>>“So here we are again, in late April, absolutely panicking,” writes Barry Svrluga. And it’s tough to argue with him. For the Capitals, it’s starting to look like the same old story.
>> The Capitals got off to such a hot start, dominating play throughout the first period, that it seemed this series would be even by the end of the evening. But shots on goal and time on the offensive zone don’t count, goals do, and Washington’s failure to cash in on any of its opportunities left the door wide open for the Penguins to take off come the second period. Now, because of the Caps’ failure to finish early, Pittsburgh is one step closer to finishing them.
>> Speaking of the Penguins, they clearly can subsist on getting out shot, losing more faceoffs than they win and having to kill off more penalties in the first period than they did in all of Game 1. Pittsburgh’s ability to overcome a slow start and still take care of business was on full display Saturday night, and now they head home with a 2-0 lead in this series.
>> Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009 and has been a franchise cornerstone for more than a decade, but was replaced by rookie Matt Murray because of injuries last postseason. He nearly rode the bench for another playoff run, but when Murray was injured in warm-ups of Game 1 during the Penguins’ first-round series, Fleury stepped into a net that is, at least for the moment, his again. Fleury’s steady play is making the Penguins’ Cup pursuit much simpler.
>> D.C. sporting events aren’t known for their celebrity power, but last week seemed different. Twenty-four hours after Joe Biden brought down the house during a Wizards-Hawks playoff game, the Caps hosted a veteran A-lister of their own: David Letterman and his truly spectacular beard. Dan Steinberg talked with the TV legend about why he was at the game and whom he was rooting for.
>> The Penguins’ secondary scoring helped set them apart from the Capitals in the second round of last year’s playoffs, and the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards didn’t counter with much. Now Andre Burakovsky is looking to change that playing alongside Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, who was swapped onto the third line for Brett Connolly during the first-round series against the Maple Leafs.
>> There are few people more intimately involved with the Caps than David Abrutyn, who pops up Zelig-like throughout the history of this franchise. He has represented Washington’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, since late 2009, a few months after Ovechkin’s Caps met Sidney Crosby’s Penguins in the postseason for the first time. But that hardly begins to tell the story of his connections to the Capitals.
>> Karl Alzner, whose contract expires after this season, knows nothing will be resolved until Washington’s playoff run ends, but it’s been hard to avoid thoughts about the future. Understanding the salary cap constraints coming this summer when several young players will need new contracts, he has occasionally scanned the Capitals’ roster, trying to determine which players the team will want to keep at the cost of a raise and which will have to move on.
>> While Barry Trotz said last year’s second-round meeting was a snapshot of this upcoming one, the same could be said of the Maple Leafs series the Capitals just won. The Capitals had to endure relentless pressure from the Maple Leafs. Now the Capitals feel a bit more prepared to face a Penguins team that, while banged up, didn’t alter its style after winning the Stanley Cup.
>> This year should be different for the Capitals, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg writes. Pittsburgh overwhelmed Washington with its depth last season, but Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan addressed that issue during the offseason. The team signed Boston Bruins winger Brett Connolly, traded for center Lars Eller and moved Jay Beagle down the lineup to a role on the fourth line that better suited his defensive style of play. And the Capitals bring other advantages, as well.
>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will get the lion’s share of the attention, but the eventual winner of this series will be the team that gets the most production from players other than its stars, writes Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg.
>> Let’s acknowledge the obvious: There shouldn’t be a Penguins series. Not yet, anyhow.
>> Ever since the teams’ hard-fought, six-game series a year ago, the Capitals and Penguins have seemed to be on a collision course to do it all over again.
>> Playoff hockey is a rush and a thrill and a jolt of adrenaline and a three-hour sugar high. But it’s also often stupid, writes Dan Steinberg. The games are tight. The margins are tiny. Luck lurks everywhere. Happenstance tugs at every collar. And too often, the team that gets the better of the play still loses the game.
>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”