PITTSBURGH — This place, now called PPG Paints Arena, fell silent for long stretches Monday night, and look who hit the mute button with authority. Reaching into Pittsburgh’s collective throat and yanking out its larynx would be none other than the Washington Capitals. Go figure.
For the second straight game, these Caps stared warily at that season hockey players dread: summer. And here, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, they responded with all the qualities their predecessors have so frequently ceded to opponents — poise and patience, savvy, a self-assuredness that, frankly, was somewhat unsettling given the name across the front of their sweaters.
So much of this was a clinic, this 5-2 victory for the Capitals in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And because of the style of this performance — one that had the faithful here streaming for the exits in the third period, their team down five goals — here are two realities: Wednesday night’s Game 7 at Verizon Center is the biggest of the Alex Ovechkin era of Washington hockey. And when the puck drops to decide the series, the clear favorite will be the team in red sweaters.
“It’s right where we want it right now,” veteran center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Imagine this entire scenario five days earlier. The Capitals, then, stood on the precipice. Since, they have completely grabbed the Stanley Cup playoffs and spun them like a top — scoring the last three goals of Game 5 and the first five of Game 6. Do the math: That’s eight straight.
More than that, it may well have marked a shift in how freely the Caps are playing. They understand their ability again. They’re not just comfortable but able to take a lead — and build on it.
“I think mentally was the biggest reason we weren’t achieving what we wanted to achieve,” said winger T.J. Oshie, who opened the scoring Monday with his first goal of the series. “Even in the Toronto series, and then a couple games in this series, mentally we weren’t able to stay focused. . . . That third period in Game 5, I think, kind of freed us up a little, and we’ve been getting momentum and confidence from that to play our game and to trust our ability.”
Remember what the Capitals’ game looked like? Remember their ability? Appearing Monday, for maybe the first time since the postseason began, was the best team in hockey over the course of 82 games. They ground out a goal in the first on a hard-earned power play — a penalty Ovechkin set up with a pass to new linemate Tom Wilson, who drew the call on, of all people, Sidney Crosby. They willed in a goal in the second on the individual, playoff-defining effort of Andre Burakovsky, suddenly reborn. And — and this might be most important — when they sensed proud Pittsburgh was wounded, they tore at the Penguins’ festering flesh, spitting on them for good measure.
“We’re having fun now,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
What a role reversal. Forget, for a moment, the theme that colors this whole series and these two franchises: the fact that Crosby’s Penguins have won two Stanley Cups while Ovechkin’s Capitals have won none. But consider the intricacies of this series, the factors that set up Game 7.
Consider that the shaky goalie was once Washington’s Braden Holtby, yanked after two periods of the second game. Now, even as the Penguins beat Holtby twice in the final four minutes Monday, the potential problem in net is unquestionably Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who cursed himself after Burakovsky’s second-period goal put the Caps up 2-0 — and then looked dicey the rest of the way.
Consider, too, that for the first four games of this series, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan was praised — rightly — for squeezing the most out of a team that had endured injuries all season, a factor when Crosby missed Game 4 with a concussion and the Penguins won anyway. Now, though, credit must be granted to Trotz, who made what could have been seen as a panic move with his team trailing three games to one — dropping Ovechkin, the best player in the franchise’s history, to the third line while bumping Burakovsky up to play with Backstrom, even though Burakovsky had done nothing to earn a promotion.
The sum totals for the six players on those two lines after Burakovsky scored twice and Oshie added his first of the series Monday night: seven goals.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Backstrom said. At the moment, that’s believable.
None of this guarantees anything about Wednesday night, of course. So, much of the next 48 hours in Washington could be filled with angst, because what could be more “Caps” than clawing back from a 3-1 deficit in the series to force a seventh game on home ice — only to lose it? There will be, over those two days, comparisons to 2009, when Washington similarly won the sixth game in Pittsburgh to earn a trip back home — that one on David Steckel’s overtime goal at the old Igloo. Those Caps arrived home with all sorts of momentum and anticipation, and they were simply overwhelmed in a 6-2 Penguins victory.
The moment, on that night, was too big for those Capitals. Is this version any different?
“We’ve got to be pretty mature about this,” Oshie said. “We know that’s not going to be the exact same story. They’re not going to just go away. They’re Stanley Cup champions for a reason.”
Ovechkin, the captain, and Backstrom, his longtime running mate, are the only two members of that group from 2009 who will take the ice Wednesday night for their second Game 7 against Crosby and the Penguins, albeit eight years apart. Back then, that loss was painful, but the in-the-moment analysis was that it was endured by a team on the rise. There would be other chances. This was, if you can remember, the not-if-but-when period for this franchise.
We’ve long since traveled through that phase, and painfully. Now, we’ve morphed into a new era: If they ever do it, how? How in the world? The people of Washington don’t know what a Stanley Cup winner looks like from short range, not even close. It’s amazing it’s taken this long to bring up this fact, but it’s so well-known, so much part of the fabric, that it’s just assumed as common knowledge: Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Wednesday, they get another chance. The only things at stake are the star player’s legacy and his franchise’s cursed fate. But because of how they reached that moment — by playing their best hockey when nothing less would suffice — they will take the ice as favorites. For once, they have to do it.