Desperation was new to the Washington Capitals’ locker room, the fear of summer starting early long a distant thought for a team that had the NHL’s best record throughout the regular season. There was an admitted curiosity among players as to how they’d respond to this kind of pressure, but Coach Barry Trotz never had any doubt.
“Coming to the rink, I said to our coaches, ‘We’re winning today, there’s no question,’ ” Trotz said. “You can tell with our team. We get a sense of that. I knew this morning.”
Trotz’s certainty was validated in the form of a potent power play, a clutch goaltender and a few fortunate bounces — elements that sparked a 3-1 win at Verizon Center over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of this second-round playoff series, extending the Capitals’ season for at least one more game.
Game 6 is Tuesday in Pittsburgh with the Penguins still holding a 3-2 lead.
“After practice, we just talked about it, and we just said that we’re really, really tight, and no one wants to be finished playing right now,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You’re going to see probably the best hockey that this team has played this year.”
Tina Turner’s music had blared through the Capitals’ dressing room after an optional skate on Saturday morning, the latest example of a Washington team trying not to be tense in a circumstance that couldn’t be described as anything else. Before the postseason started, General Manager Brian MacLellan said, “We’re here to win a championship; anything less than that is unsuccessful.”
After three straight losses to the Penguins, the Capitals were suddenly just one more away from another second-round playoff exit. But the Capitals were confident, mostly happy with how they’d played the past two games in Pittsburgh. One constant was that they’d struggled to get shots past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, and the power play had looked anemic. Entering Saturday night’s game, Washington had scored just one power-play goal in 12 chances against Pittsburgh.
On Friday, Evgeny Kuznetsov predicted that if the team could just get one power-play goal, the floodgates would open. Washington got its first crack at that when Alex Ovechkin plowed toward the net, drawing a hooking penalty by Bryan Rust less than four minutes into the game. The Capitals’ first shot on goal was Ovechkin’s blast into the top of the net, his signature one-timer from the left faceoff circle set up by Nicklas Backstrom.
“They did a good job shutting us down,” T.J. Oshie said of the Penguins’ penalty kill. “They bring a lot of pressure, so as long as we stay ahead of their pressure, we’re going to get chances, we’re going to get opportunities.”
Pittsburgh’s man-advantage threatened to steal momentum. A Backstrom interference penalty in the offensive zone 5 minutes 47 seconds into the game gave the Penguins life. The Capitals’ penalty kill had shut out Pittsburgh’s power play for the whole series, but a shot by Phil Kessel dribbled down the side of goaltender Braden Holtby’s pad, and Chris Kunitz punched it past the goaltender to draw the Penguins even.
After Backstrom’s interference minor, the Capitals managed just one more shot on goal for the last 14:13 of the first period, finishing with just four in the first 20 minutes. Less than three minutes into the second period, the power play restored the lead after Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole was whistled for slashing Tom Wilson.
It was Ovechkin who jump-started it again. His shot ricocheted off Murray’s pad, and a desperation swat by Oshie in the slot made it 2-1. The two goals came on four power-play shots. Pittsburgh didn’t help itself, called for more penalties in Game 5 than in any other game of this series.
“They stick to their best weapon and it’s a question of time before they get going,” Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang said. “You don’t want to give them too many opportunities to bring that power play on the ice.”
Less than six minutes after Oshie’s goal, Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin attempted to pass a puck out of the defensive zone, but it was intercepted by Williams at the point. With only Murray in front of him, Williams shot in the high slot, the puck dribbling through Murray’s legs and into the net, an uncharacteristic poor play by the rookie netminder.
As if on cue, Holtby made two of his best saves of the season near the end of the second period. His right pad denied a point-blank Patric Hornqvist wrister. Thirty seconds later, the Penguins got a two-on-one, and Holtby went into a full split to stop a Justin Schultz shot with his glove. The Verizon Center crowd cheered his name appreciatively, suddenly hopeful that maybe the Capitals would find themselves back in this arena for a Game 7.
“They responded,” Trotz said of his team. “I had never any doubt that they weren’t going to respond.”