PITTSBURGH — Nicklas Backstrom didn’t even lift his stick in celebration as he watched the puck sail past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His expression was stoic, and yet it seemed to say so much.
The Washington Capitals were businesslike in their clinical 5-2 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night, and they played with the poise of a team whose work isn’t done yet. The Capitals tied this Eastern Conference semifinal series at three games apiece to force a Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday night, staving off elimination for a second straight game.
“Our goal is to win the series,” Backstrom said. “We knew we had to play our best game tonight and force that Game 7. Anything can happen, but it’s right where we want it right now.”
This win in Game 6 was the Capitals’ most impressive of the postseason as they controlled play the entire night and didn’t allow the Penguins to possess the puck long enough to score until the game was out of hand with less than four minutes left. Pittsburgh finished with just 18 shots on goal, tying its season low.
With the Capitals up by two goals through two periods, Backstrom’s goal on a two-on-one just 16 seconds into the third seemed to seal the result. But just to be safe, Washington continued to pile on with John Carlson’s power-play goal to make it 4-0 and send fans clad in gold filtering out of PPG Paints Arena. Before that goal had even been announced, Andre Burakovsky scored his second goal of the game to give the Capitals a five-goal cushion.
A year ago, Washington never got a Game 7, as its season ended in a Game 6 in this same round and same building. On Monday night, the Capitals showed they had at least made some progress since then, bouncing back after an early 2-0 series deficit and then again when Pittsburgh took a three-games-to-one lead.
“We’ve grown through our past a little bit, I guess,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Since probably Game 3, we’ve had a sense of calmness around what we’re doing, and we’re having fun now. The fun part has been the obstacle.”
Going into Game 5 on Saturday night, Trotz tweaked his lineup, moving superstar winger Alex Ovechkin to a third line while promoting Burakovsky to the top line with Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. While Burakovsky had been consistently generating scoring chances, he didn’t have production at the time, making the change odd on the surface.
But Burakovsky, the Capitals’ streakiest scorer, finally found the back of the net against Fleury in Game 5, and he injected speed into Washington’s top line. In Game 6, it was his physicality that made a difference. After Oshie had a monster shift to keep the puck in the zone, Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey got it along the boards and was about to clear it out of Pittsburgh’s end when Burakovsky hit him and separated from the puck.
“I just think that’s something you have to do now in the playoffs,” Burakovsky said. “You have to finish your checks, and obviously, it worked out today. But I mean, I’m trying to be a little more physical. I’m heavy enough, and I think I’m strong enough for sure, so I’m just going to keep it up that way.”
That created a two-on-one with Burakovsky and Oshie, and Burakovsky kept it for himself, wedging the puck between Fleury. That lifted the Capitals to a 2-0 lead 6:36 into the second period, and it was indicative of how the first 40 minutes had gone for the Penguins as they were repeatedly pinned in the defensive zone.
That rejiggered top line continued to pose problems for the Penguins, as it accounted for two of the Capitals’ goals in the third period. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s top trio with Sidney Crosby went without a shot on goal for the first 37-plus minutes of the game.
“We’re playing fast,” Oshie said. “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.”
Fans in the arena started to get restless when the score got to 2-0. When the Penguins went on a power play 11:03 into the second period, they had five shots on goal for the game and then failed to record one during the man-advantage. That prompted boos from the crowd, and when Pittsburgh was able to get a sixth shot on goal, a Bronx cheer followed.
The Penguins finished with eight shots on goal through 40 minutes, once again considerably outshot by Washington, which had 16 by then. The difference in this game was that the Capitals hadn’t made any mistakes for Pittsburgh to use in a counterattack.
“I think we’re a little bit more confident,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We’ve capitalized on some of our scoring chances. You can tell just with the puck tonight, some guys were pretty confident when they had it and they were able to make some plays and take some good shots. So we’ll try to keep this thing going for a Game 7 at home.”
In Game 6 a year ago, Washington fell into an early 3-0 hole before rallying to force overtime, in which the team ultimately lost. The Capitals took a first step toward changing their fortunes this time around by scoring first. They held the Penguins without a shot on goal for 12:17, and Washington’s time in the offensive zone helped draw two penalties by Pittsburgh.
The Capitals then capitalized on their second power play with Oshie finishing a tic-tac-toe passing sequence, and the early lead allowed the Capitals to settle into a better lineup rhythm because they could roll their lines more evenly when they weren’t trailing.
On Monday morning, it was Oshie who was particularly vocal about this game marking an opportunity for Washington to get a “do-over” and show this isn’t the same team that annually falls short of the conference final. The Capitals then emphatically let their play back that up while not taking their focus off the ultimate goal.