Penguins now in desperation mode — but they’ve succeeded in these spots before

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By Roman Stubbs,

Sidney Crosby sat alone in the visiting locker room of Capital One Arena late Saturday night, carefully organizing his mangled pads in silence. Every other player had disappeared to the showers at that point after Pittsburgh’s 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series, but Crosby lingered after he had completed his media duties as the Penguins’ captain and de facto team spokesman.

Crosby sat at his stall and looked up for a moment, and what he saw had to be so unfamiliar. The room sat in eerie silence. Reporters whispered. Equipment managers hurried to break down the lockers. Owner Mario Lemieux quietly slipped into an adjacent training room. Crosby eventually grabbed a bag of laundry and headed for the showers, walking by a white board that had just one reminder: The Penguins’ bus back home to their elimination game Monday night left at 10:45.

“Your desperation level is at its highest. You know the situation,” Crosby said. “But I feel like we’ve played pretty desperate hockey here.”

The Penguins are now in a 3-2 series hole for just the second time over the past two years and will face a non-Game 7 elimination game in Monday’s Game 6 in Pittsburgh for the first time since 2016 against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals.

[Penguins-Capitals Game 5: Washington wins, 6-3, and Caps have two chances to clinch series]

Pittsburgh rallied to win that series before capturing its first of two consecutive Stanley Cup titles, and Washington fans will remember that the dramatic comeback against the Lightning was made possible because the Penguins had vanquished the Capitals in the second round in six games in the previous series. But now the Penguins’ rivals are threatening to eliminate them — a year after Pittsburgh had again ousted Washington in the second round, in seven games — which left Crosby and his teammates confronted with a somewhat perplexing question after they had squandered a 3-2 lead in the third period Saturday night: What is different about this resilient Washington team?

“I haven’t really thought back to be honest, or reflected much,” Crosby said. “I think after every game you move on, win or lose.”

It will be more difficult for the Penguins to move on after this pivotal Game 5 loss, simply because their performance “might have been our best game of the series,” Coach Mike Sullivan declared after the loss. What was even more difficult to swallow was that his team’s showing in the second period — in which it had outshot Washington 18-5 and taken control of the game with goals by Crosby and Patric Hornqvist to complement suffocating defense — might have been the best period the team has played in weeks. Pittsburgh led 3-2 largely because it had received secondary scoring for the first time all series — Crosby had entered the night having been on the ice for all 10 of the team’s goals through the first four games, a streak snapped after defenseman Jamie Oleksiak scored the first goal of the game — and Derick Brassard and Phil Kessel both had their best showings of the series.

[Svrluga: As the Capitals enter unchartered territory, one thing is clear: They believe]

Both Brassard and Kessel — the latter of whom some observers have speculated is dealing with an injury as he has struggled throughout the postseason — will be crucial if Pittsburgh is going to replicate 2016 and win the final two games of the series. But it will also have to quickly recover from the pain of the chance it threw away Saturday. The Penguins again received shaky goaltending in the final period from Matt Murray — who entered the night with a 90.9 save percentage, the lowest postseason average of his short career, and has been under scrutiny the entire series. It didn’t help that Pittsburgh endured a defensive breakdown that allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov a game-tying breakaway goal in the third. Or that it had a chance to take the lead with less than five minutes remaining on a golden scoring chance for Brian Dumoulin, who couldn’t get the puck past Braden Holtby. That led to a rush the other way and the game-winning goal for Jakub Vrana, sending Pittsburgh back home with its back against the wall.

“You got to sometimes give some, take some,” Dumoulin said. “Obviously if I score there, it’s a different game.”

More Capitals-Penguins coverage: Backstrom left in third period with ‘upper-body’ injury ‘One more game!’: Caps fans celebrate on Portrait Gallery steps From last week: Speedy Vrana could an X-factor for the Caps