By Barry Svrluga,
Here, in some order, is what the Washington Capitals overcame Saturday night: They were without Andre Burakovsky, who is hurt. They were without Tom Wilson, who is suspended. And at some point in a roil-the-stomach third period, they were without Nicklas Backstrom, who is essential to, basically, everything they do.
They played a miserable second period, their worst of this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They trailed by a goal headed into the final 20 minutes in their own building, when a loss would have granted the Penguins a chance to advance at home Monday night. They took penalty after penalty, and whether you agreed with the calls or thought they were hot garbage, the feeling in the building was both dour and dire.
And now? Now they have not one but two chances to — oh, if you’re reading this far, you know precisely what’s at stake.
“I don’t know if I could tell you exactly what it would mean,” veteran forward T.J. Oshie said. “None of us have ever been there.”
Not in a red sweater, that’s for sure.
[Penguins-Capitals Game 5: Washington wins, 6-3, and Caps have two chances to clinch series]
Process what just happened. Blink your eyes clear. Let them focus. Yep, that’s what you see: The Capitals beat the Penguins, 6-3, in Game 5 of this second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. They hold a 3-2 series lead. They could . . .
Let’s walk this back a bit. Because if the Capitals are to advance to a place to which this group has never ventured, they need to do more of what they did Saturday and less of what they have done for — oh, basically the entire existence of this franchise.
“We’re going to Pittsburgh with one goal in mind,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s very simple.”
Keep it that way, Barry. Simple. Eyes straight forward. Heartbeats calm. Breaths even.
It’s the only explanation for what the Caps pulled off Saturday. They were outshot 18-5 in the second period. They offered the Penguins, who had the best power play in the league during the regular season, four consecutive power plays. They were either flat or reeling. Pick one. Neither’s good.
Had goalie Braden Holtby not developed into their absolute spine, their heads might have exploded between the second and third periods. Certainly, they would have trailed by more than 3-2. Instead, they were calm, with captain Alex Ovechkin delivering doses of — get this — reason and sanity.
“Like Ovi said, we have to be patient,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “We have to wait for our chances. And when our chances come, we have to score.”
[Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom leaves in third period with upper-body injury]
He was speaking of the third period of Game 5, but lay those words over the entirety of the relationship between the Capitals and the Penguins, and they fit, too. They have been patient in waiting for this chance, to be up in a series as it heads to the final one or two games. They have waited for their chances because for Ovechkin and Backstrom, this is their fourth second-round series against the Penguins. We know the results of the other three.
But even for the fans who date back to the first building out in the ’burbs, who can say they have followed along for 40-something years — they have waited for their chances, too, because the playoff tally between the franchises is Penguins 9, Capitals 1. It’s one of those lopsided relationships in which the Capitals can call the Penguins their “rivals,” and the Penguins can smirk and say, “That’s cute.”
This is, then, their best chance. It has taken significant work to get to this point, to a point at which the Capitals can say — in emotion and on paper — that they have an advantage. Though the previous series in the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby era have gone seven, six and seven games, Washington has never had two chances to eliminate Pittsburgh.
It took Kuznetsov’s goal 52 seconds into the third period to tie it. It took Jakub Vrana’s with 4:38 remaining to blow the lid off the joint. It took two empty netters for it to sink in.
Now, how to handle what’s to come?
The Capitals clearly are still stinging from the three-game suspension levied on Wilson following his Game 3 annihilation of Pittsburgh rookie Zach Aston-Reese. They did not feel as if Wilson drove up toward Aston-Reese’s head, as the NHL ruled. They didn’t think it was unarguable that Wilson’s left shoulder hit Aston-Reese’s head first, that it could have glanced off his body beforehand. And they didn’t think the reverse angle the NHL used to make that last determination showed the players’ bodies enough to reveal how they were preparing for the collision.
And so, when Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel drove into Capitals defenseman John Carlson behind the net — a high hit that Carlson didn’t see coming — Trotz was there to pounce.
“I know the standard’s been set, so I’m going to leave it up to the league,” he said. “It was a head shot, in my opinion — an unsuspecting high hit.”
Some advice: Put that stuff away. Bottle it up. Throw it in the Allegheny, the Monongahela or the Ohio. The Capitals are in position to win this series on the ice — even as shorthanded as they are and possibly could be if Backstrom can’t return for Game 6. Leave it at that, and don’t bite at the bait.
[From last week: Speedy Jakub Vrana could be the X-factor for the Capitals]
Now, listen to what Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said afterward.
“It might have been our best game of the series,” he said. “And we didn’t come out with the result we were looking for.”
Haven’t a thousand Capitals coaches over a million playoff series said things like that?
This is such a sucker thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway: This feels different. It’s not to say the Penguins can’t win Monday and again Wednesday. Of course they can. The most hardened in the crowd Saturday night would scream for the goals of Kuznetsov and Vrana — and then prepare for the worst.
“Tonight was one of those games where we needed to earn it from our fans,” Holtby said. “They probably think, ‘Here we go again.’ ”
Probably? Braden, you have been here long enough. Try definitely.
“We’re not thinking that,” Holtby said. “We’re thinking we’re pushing forward. We’re focusing on the moment, and hopefully we gave them belief with that third period because this group in here believes in ourselves.”
The fans, they will believe it when the clock shows 0:00 and the scoreboard reads more goals for the Capitals than for the Penguins. Imagine that scene. But for now, what the Capitals know about themselves is that what’s in front of them now has never been in front of them before — two shots to beat the Penguins and move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
More on Capitals-Penguins: ‘One more game!’: Capitals fans take back the National Portrait Gallery steps Andre Burakovsky unlikely to return by end of series Penguins dismiss fatigue factor after reaching their 60th playoff game in three seasons