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May 8, 2018
Down Go The Champs – Evgeny Kuznetsov had a hat trick of breakaway goals in the Caps’ six-game, second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and each goal got progressively more important. 

Kuznetsov scored the first goal of the series on a semi-breakaway just 17 seconds into Game 1. He scored the game-tying tally in the first minute of the third period of Game 5, and later in the same frame he helped set up Jakub Vrana’s game-winner. And finally and most majestically, he slayed the dragon with a breakaway goal on Pens goalie Matt Murray at 5:27 of overtime in Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh. 

Game, set, match, curse, jinx. 

Kuznetsov’s third goal of the series helped the Caps get by the Penguins in the playoffs for the first time in 24 years and just the second time in 11 postseason meetings between the two longtime rivals, and it puts the Capitals into the Eastern Conference final for the first time in 20 years.

“It just feels unbelievable,” says Kuznetsov. “When you get first round and you get second round, it’s pretty emotional. I don’t have words for that, you know?” 

It’s okay. Those three goals speak loudly enough. 

“We’re only halfway,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We haven’t done anything yet. But it’s a good feeling, getting by the Penguins because there are a lot of skeletons in the closet. It’s a start.” 

Taking The Air Out Of It – Pittsburgh’s lineup for Monday night’s Game 6 featured 13 players who have had their names etched upon Lord Stanley’s chalice in each of the last two springs.  

By contrast, Washington’s Monday night lineup included five players who had not played in the Stanley Cup playoffs until this spring, and two of them played their first career playoff game in Monday’s Game 6. The Caps were also missing three top-six forwards. 

Playing without Nicklas Backstrom (upper body injury), Andre Burakovsky (upper body) and Tom Wilson (suspension), the Caps had a rather spartan lineup compared to that of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. Washington’s best chance to win Game 6 was to treat it like a Tom Brady-endorsed football – take the air right out of it. 

And that’s precisely what the Capitals did, and they did it almost perfectly. 

Rookies Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker drew into the lineup for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Boyd entered Monday’s game with eight games worth of NHL experience, the last of which was more than a month ago, April 5 against Nashville. Walker came in with nine games worth of regular season NHL experience, but none since before Christmas. His last previous game was with the AHL Hershey Bears on April 15. 

Reading the news and internet clips and links from Pittsburgh on Monday, it sure seemed as though the Caps had no chance to win Monday’s game. Virtually every Pittsburgh media outlet was predicting another heartbreak for the Caps at the hands of the local hockey heroes not just in Game 6, but in the series as well.  

Ah, but those local hockey heroes were heavy-legged and running low on energy; they’ve played a lot of high-leverage hockey over the past three years. By night’s end, they were frustrated by Washington’s neutral zone swamp, and the Pens’ barn sounded like a library at closing time. Sucking the air out of the game and the building gave the Caps their best chance at finishing off the Pens on Monday and avoiding a Game 7. 

“It definitely did,” agrees Caps goalie Braden Holtby, the rock of the series for Washington. “In terms of what kind of game we had to play in order to win – especially without Nick [and with] a couple of guys who hadn’t played in the playoffs yet, a road game – it was exactly the game.  

“We didn’t give them much life, didn’t take unnecessary risks. We just played as a unit every shift. In terms of defensive games throughout this series, that was by far our best one. And that shows a good maturity from our group.”

“I thought we had a real good game plan going in,” says Trotz. “I thought that we may have some match-ups that may not be favorable, that we had to really play systematically. We had to be really smart and detailed. I think we had a good plan coming in, and the guys believed in it, they stuck with it, and I thought it gave us the best chance.” 

The Great Wall Of Holtby – Pens goalie Matt Murray helped backstop his team to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in each of his first two seasons in the league, but Holtby vastly outplayed him in this series.  

The Caps exploited Murray’s glove hand and his five-hole repeatedly in the series while Pittsburgh was forced to rely on special teams, tips and rebounds for its scoring in this series. Rare was the goal that beat Holtby cleanly on the first shot in the Pittsburgh series. 

Holtby is now 8-3 in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and he is 8-2 as a starter. He has yet to lose consecutive games or to allow more than three goals in any game this spring. Holtby’s 2.04 GAA ranks second among all goalies with at least five games played in the playoffs, and his .926 save pct. ranks fourth. 

All In, And In The Third Round – Trotz spoke for less than two minutes during his pregame press conference after Monday’s morning skate. He did say his team would be “all in,” for Game 6 and they certainly were. 

“Just really happy for the group,” said Trotz after the game. “We had I think five or six rookies in the lineup tonight. We had a good game plan, and the great thing about this is all day, I knew we were going to win. I don’t know why, but I just knew. This group has got a lot of resiliency.” 

For Trotz, Monday’s win also catapults him into the third round of the playoffs for the first time in his two decades behind an NHL bench. Just as Caps captain Alex Ovechkin catches a lot of flak for not reaching the conference final in a team sport, so too has Trotz over the years.

“I’ve been at this for a while and it’s so hard to move forwards sometimes,” says Trotz, “and it’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. And I know it’s thrown in [Alex Ovechkin’s] face everywhere he turns, and he is a great player in this league. The league is a tough league. I think we’re the only team in the last couple of years to get to the second round. [Ed: The Caps are the only NHL team to reach the second round in each of the last four Stanley Cup playoffs.] Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups.  

“It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration, because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You’ve just got to stay with it. There is a kinship there; there is no question. For that whole group – Backstrom, Ovi and myself, everybody – you’re pushing and pushing.” 

Dashing Debuts – Walker and Boyd more than held their own in their first taste of Stanley Cup playoff action. Walker assisted on the Caps’ first goal of the game, becoming the first Australian to play and record a point in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Playing his first NHL game since mid-December, Walker finished with 8:29 in ice time, a shot on net and three hits. He also had the primary helper on Alex Chiasson’s goal early in the second period. 

Boyd skated 12:12 in Game 6, more than he logged in any of his eight regular season NHL games. He recorded a shot on net, a hit, a couple of blocked shots, and he won five of nine face-offs on the night,  

The 39 Sweater – Nine years ago this week, the Caps won Game 6 of their second-round series against the Penguins at the old Igloo on a Dave Steckel deflection goal in overtime. That tally didn’t win the series for Washington, it merely forced a Game 7 back in D.C. which the Caps lost, but you knew that, too.

As you’ll recall, Steckel patrolled the ice with No. 39 on the back of his sweater, as does Alex Chiasson. Going into Monday’s Game 6, Chiasson was the only Caps skater to play in every game of the playoffs without recording a point. Chiasson took care of that early in the second, firing a shot through Murray on the short side to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. 

That No. 39 road sweater has now accounted for a couple of critical postseason tallies in Game 6 victories for the Caps in Pittsburgh.

Center Of Attention – When they’re all healthy, the Caps boast one of the league’s best stables of centers. Washington has won three overtime games in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and centers have supplied the game-winners in all three contests. 

Lars Eller scored in double-overtime of Game 3 against Columbus in the first round, preventing the Caps from falling into an 0-3 canyon in that series. Backstrom scored the game-winner in Game 5 against the Jackets, and Kuznetsov won Game 6 against the Pens. 

Road Killers – Washington’s Monday night victory was its fifth road victory in six road games thus far in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. And since the Caps closed out the regular season with five straight wins away from the District, Washington has now won 10 of its last 11 road games overall. That’s good, because the Caps won’t have home ice advantage at all the rest of the way. 

Streak Stopped – Pittsburgh fell just short of matching one of the most difficult records to attain in hockey history, at least in the eyes of this veteran observer. The Pens had won nine straight best-of-seven playoff series, just one shy of the NHL record established by the 1955-60 Montreal Canadiens, who won 10 straight series back in the days of the Original Six when the playoffs consisted of just two rounds.

Sure the 1976-79 Canadiens and the 1980-83 New York Islanders both won four straight Cups and won more consecutive series than the Pens, but first-round series weren’t best-of-seven in those days. What the Penguins were able to achieve in this era of parity and a salary cap is quite remarkable indeed. 

“Sometimes we all learn more from our failures than we do our successes,” says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. “I think this group knows how hard it its to win in the playoffs. All of the teams are really good and there is a fine line between winning and losing. 

“We haven’t tasted this for a long time, and that’s a credit to the group of players that are in that dressing room, because they’ve been a hungry group and they’ve accomplished so much. And I couldn’t be more proud of them as their coach because of that. But obviously we’re all disappointed. We were hoping we’d get a different result. We’re going to have to digest it, see what we can learn from it so we can be better for next season.”

Pittsburgh scored 24 goals at five-on-five in its first-round series against Philadelphia. But while the Pens were playing river hockey against the Flyers, the Caps were engaged in a taut first-round struggle with Columbus, a series in which four of the six games required overtime. 

When the second round got underway, the Caps were accustomed to close-checking, tight games. The Penguins were not. Pittsburgh surprised the Caps in the third period of Game 1, scoring three five-on-five goals in less than five minutes to stun Washington 3-2 and take a 1-0 series lead. 

But it also turned out to be the only series lead the Pens would have, and those three five-on-five goals in Game 1 turned out to be half of Pittsburgh’s total for the entire six-game series. That’s right, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a grand total of three five-on-five goals in the final five games of their second-round series against Washington, and they’ve got the rest of the summer to think about it. 

Bear Necessities – Two springs ago, Washington’s AHL Hershey farm affiliate advanced all the way to the Calder Cup final before falling to Lake Erie. That 2015-16 Bears roster was laden with youthful, first-year pros, and it somehow came within four victories of a championship.

Five members of that 2015-16 Hershey team were in the lineup for Monday’s clincher in Pittsburgh: Boyd, Walker, Christian Djoos, Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana. The latter two players supplied critical goals at key junctures of the Pittsburgh series and both skated more than 20 minutes in Monday’s elimination game. 

Caps defenseman Madison Bowey was also a member of that ’15-16 Bears team, and he is still waiting in the wings for his postseason debut in the NHL. Washington would not have made it this far this spring without the contributions of those former Bears who got their first taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey this spring, two years after going to the final in their first pro seasons at the AHL level.

By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 29:38 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on net, 11 shot attempts and seven hits … Michal Kempny led the Caps with five blocked shots … Washington won only 24 of the game’s 63 face-offs (38%).