Capitals overcome third-period deficit to beat Penguins in Game 5
Evgeny Kuznetsov had a guarantee for the Washington Capitals’ fifth game of this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. After Alex Ovechkin had criticized his own poor play, Kuznetsov expressed confidence in his captain. “He will score next game for sure,” Kuznetsov said Wednesday night.
Kuznetsov left out the part in which he would score, too, on a shot with no angle, a shot that saved the Capitals’ season for at least one more game. Ovechkin’s goal came next in Washington’s 4-2 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, which featured the Capitals’ top players at their best in the most important moments.
“You still don’t trust me?” Kuznetsov said with a smirk Saturday night at Verizon Center.
“Everybody who scored was one of the top guys,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I liked the response of our leadership.”
Washington trails the Penguins 3-2 in the best-of-seven
with Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh. With the Capitals down 2-1 going into the third period, the ingredients to the spirited comeback included goaltender Braden Holtby making every save needed for the Capitals’ top forwards to break through on the scoreboard. That started with Nicklas Backstrom beating goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with a shot that sailed just under Fleury’s glove to tie the game less than three minutes into the frame.
Kuznetsov’s goal gave the Capitals their first lead of the game 7:20 into the period, and Ovechkin’s goal followed just 27 seconds later. Trotz had called out the performance of his top players in the team’s Game 4 loss, and they responded with the season on life support.
“Obviously, that’s something we all know: We should be a difference maker almost every game here,” Backstrom said. “So even if he said it, you know it yourself if you have a bad game a good game.”
The Capitals have preached owning the big moments, but at times in the first 40 minutes, Washington didn’t even seem aware it was in the middle of one. The Penguins’ Phil Kessel scored on the power play to give his team a 2-1 lead 4:20 into the second period, but rather than responding with desperation, the Capitals played the rest of the second period with the urseries gency you might expect in a November regular season game. Washington managed just two shots on goal in the 12-plus minutes after Kessel gave the Penguins a lead.
This season, writ large, is a pivotal moment for the franchise, the last year of a closing window with the most talented team to surround stars Backstrom and Ovechkin. Eleven players on the roster are entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency this summer, meaning change is inevitably coming to the group with no guarantee of again assembling such a complete team around the aging core.
Ovechkin admitted to struggling in Game 4 on Wednesday night, and going into Game 5, he was moved down the lineup from the first line to the third line with center Lars Eller. Trotz sold that decision as trying to spread the offensive firepower across three lines, much like Pittsburgh did last season with Kessel on its third line, but on the surface, it looked like an embarrassing deor for the superstar winger.
He had two shots on goal through 40 minutes, and both came on a power play in the first period. In the third period, he came through with a much-needed insurance goal.
“We are big boys, so I think we understand what we have to do and if we play well, if we don’t play well,” Ovechkin said. “We knew in the big games you have to play hard. If you don’t shoot the puck or you don’t control the puck, you have to do some different things. You can see we turn it around, and in the third period, everybody was on the same page. You can see how calm we are at the end — no panic. Everybody knew what they have to do.”
Moving Ovechkin down the lineup put Andre Burakovsky into the top-line left wing slot, even though he had yet to score in the postseason. Burakovsky had been getting plenty of opportunities; he had 19 shots in the 10 playoff games entering Saturday night. Before the series, he had scouted Fleury and where to shoot on him, but many of his chances missed the net as he tried to “pick the corners,” he said.
In the last two minutes of the first period, Trotz returned to his old forward combinations with Ovechkin on the first line and Burakovsky on the third. Washington trailed early after Carl Hagelin beat Holtby with a shot that trickled off his glove 10:24 into the game. Entering Saturday night, the Penguins were undefeated when they had scored first in the postseason.
Trotz then moved Ovechkin back to a first line with Backstrom, which meant Burakovsky was back with Eller, the linemate he has played with most this season. The chemistry came back instantly. On his third shot of the first period, Burakovsky patiently toe-dragged around Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen before finally beating Fleury to tie the game.
“I’ve been creating a lot of chances, so it was nice to finally get one,” Burakovsky said. “I’ve been working hard to help the team and to produce. I’m a player that should produce, and I hamotion ven’t done that this series. So it was nice to get a goal today and an assist for Nicky. Now we’re just going to take it from here.”
That marked the first goal Washington has gotten from its third or fourth line this series, a disappointing part of this playoff run after the organization emphasized boosting its secondary scoring in the offseason with the intention of better matching up against the Penguins.
The Capitals got a second goal from their bottom-six forward corps when Ovechkin scored while playing with the third line, fulfilling a promise his teammate had made on his behalf. Kuznetsov already has a guarantee about Ovechkin for next game: “He’s going to score two goals.”
“When we met as a coaching staff, what we wanted to do was get more scoring through all of our lines,” Trotz said. “And that was the intent, and today we did. We’ll see what we do next game, but I felt that all of the lines were going pretty well for us today.”
CAPITALS 4, PENGUINS 2: Alex Ovechkin, center, is met by his Capitals teammates after scoring a goal in the third period of Washington’s Game 5 victory over Pittsburgh. The Capitals, facing elimination, were down 21 entering the third period until Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored before Ovechkin’s tally.
Lars Eller reacts to Alex Ovechkin’s goal that gave the Capitals a 4-2 lead over the Penguins 7:47 into the final period. Eller assisted on the goal and on Andre Burakovsky’s score in the first period.