The Pittsburgh Penguins appeared to have everything under control. They held a three-games-to-one lead over the Washington Capitals and the Caps appeared to be scrambling for answers as they tried to avoid elimination. Turns out they found some.
The Capitals routed the Penguins, 5-2, on Monday night to force an all-important Game 7 on Wednesday at Verizon Center. According to whowins.com, the overall Game 7 record of home teams in the NHL is 97-69 (.584), but there are reasons to believe Washington’s odds are even higher.
Before Game 5, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz caused a bit of a stir when he moved superstar Alex Ovechkin off Washington’s top line with center Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, and instead had him skate with third-line center Lars Eller and right wing Tom Wilson. The move looked like a demotion, but Trotz assured the public it was an effort to spread the team’s top scorers across three lines, much as the Penguins did last season with Phil Kessel on its third line.
Give Trotz his due: The move worked.
The Ovechkin line had 12 shot attempts at even strength — eight against defenseman Justin Schultz — along with the Great Eight tallying a much-needed insurance goal in the third period during Game 5. In Game 6, Ovechkin’s line torched the Kessel-Nick Bonino line for another 10 even-strength shot attempts.
The move, along with the injury to Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley, also prevented Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan from getting the matchups he wanted. In Game 4, the Brian Dumoulin-Ron Hainsey defensive pairing spent almost 10 minutes at even strength in Game 4 defending against Ovechkin’s line. In the next two games no Pittsburgh defenseman had more than six minutes against the Capitals’ new third line, and Ovechkin’s own individual scoring chances went from 1.1 per 60 minutes in Games 1-4 to 7.5 in Games 5 and 6.
The switch also freed up Washington’s other skill players to take advantage of less-adept defensemen.
Oshie’s line has a plus-15 shot attempt differential with two assists. Andre Burakovsky has an on-ice shot attempt differential of plus-14 at even-strength over the past two games, scoring two goals with an assist.
Burakovsky’s goal in Game 6 also illustrated Washington’s renewed dedication to going hard to the net. Four of the team’s five goals were in the slot, no higher than the face off dots, pushing the high-danger save percentage of Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury down to .791 in the series. It had been .889 heading into Game 5.
“We’re playing fast,” Oshie told The Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan. “We’re doing a good job on the walls, getting pucks deep and getting pucks out of our end. Burky’s a great skater and a really good goal scorer, so he’s finding whether it’s through the line or whether it’s just through him, he’s creating space to get his shot off and I think we all know how good that is. He’s been a good complement to me and Nick.”
You could argue Trotz’s less heralded move of skating defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt together has reaped even bigger rewards.
Up until this point, Shattenkirk had been skating with Brooks Orpik, who is less fleet of foot than the rest of the blue line corp. The result was six even-strength goals against, none for, in 82 minutes of ice time in the playoffs. The Shattenkirk-Schmidt pairing is the complete opposite: three goals for and none against in 46 minutes with a 9-to-1 scoring chance differential against Pittsburgh.
That’s causing the ice to tilt even more in Washington’s favor (apologies to Post columnist Dan Steinberg). The Capitals now hold a plus-121 shot attempt differential advantage at even strength, which only slightly worsens once you account for score effects (plus-105). They also have a plus-12 scoring chance differential as well, indicating all the momentum is with Washington heading into a must-win Game 7 on Wednesday.