Still alive

Cap­i­tals over­come third-pe­riod deficit to beat Pen­guins in Game 5

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY IS­ABELLE KHUR­SHUDYAN

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.”

JOHN MC­DON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

JOHN MC­DON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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