Suppressing Pittsburgh – Being down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series is never an enviable position, and it’s even less so when the defending champions are the team with the 3-1 lead. But after their convincing and commanding 5-2 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh in Monday’s Game 6, the Capitals have squared this set, forcing a decisive Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday night.
After struggling to score in the first four games of the series, the Caps have now outscored the Penguins by an 8-2 aggregate over the last four periods of play. The Capitals scored nine goals in the first four games of the series, and now they’ve scored nine goals in the last two games. The Caps have scored four or more goals in consecutive playoff games for just the fourth time during the Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom era, and the first time since Games 2 and 3 of their first-round series against Philadelphia last spring.
Certainly it is noteworthy that the Caps have capitalized on more of their scoring chances these last two games, and that’s been a key to getting the series back to even. But there’s another underlying trend that’s perhaps even more favorable to the Washington side.
Monday’s win over the Pens in Pittsburgh was more about the Capitals completely and thoroughly throttling an offensively skilled and opportunistic Penguins team and giving them next to nothing to feel good about. The Pens scored two goals in a span of 52 seconds during the final four minutes of Monday’s game, with both goals coming while the two teams were playing with four skaters to a side.
The Pens registered just three shots on net in the first frame and had just nine after 40 minutes of Game 6. They had only 10 shots on net after 40 minutes of Game 5, too. Pittsburgh didn’t record its first five-on-five shot on goal until 1.1 seconds remained in the first period of Monday’s game.
Pittsburgh scored seven five-on-five goals against the Capitals in the first two games of this series. In the four games since then, the Pens have managed a grand total of three goals at five-on-five, and one of those wasn’t even an intended shot on goal; it was a pass attempt that glanced into the Washington net off the skate of defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
So that’s three goals at five-on-five in a span of four games, and none of them have come from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel. The league’s stingiest five-on-five team during the regular season, the Caps were notably more porous at even strength in their first-round series against Toronto and in the early part of this series as well.
Washington’s series-long investment in the physical game – in getting in on the forecheck, cycling, possessing the puck and finishing checks on Pittsburgh defensemen – seems to be paying dividends. The Pens lost defenseman Trevor Daley to a lower body injury; he didn’t play in Game 6. The remainder of the Pens’ blueline corps has diminished in effectiveness as the series has worn on.
“It’s everyone’s game plan,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “We try to be hard on everybody. No one is going to shy away, but the more and more you can impose upon people and make it hard, that’s the goal at this time of year. I’m sure that every time our [defensemen] touch the puck or our forwards touch the puck, they want to make it hard on us, too. That’s the game of hockey.”
Washington has had a decided edge in puck possession (423-270 in shot attempts) over the course of the series, but it has also had a pronounced advantage in hits (215-159). When a team spends so much time absorbing punishment and chasing the opposition in its own end of the ice, erosion usually occurs over the course of several games. That seems to be the case with the Pittsburgh blueline corps right now.
Shutting the Pens down has required a total team effort for the Caps, and they’ll need at least 60 minutes more of it if they’re to overcome the defending champs.
“We moved our feet, we stayed in the battle, we stayed above them,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I thought our tracking game was really good. I thought our structure was really good. I thought our communication in terms of responsibilities in our coverages was pretty solid. When you do that, you can limit teams a little bit.”
Deja Voodoo – Nearly a year ago, the Caps’ season came to an end with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6 of their second-round series. The Caps fell down 3-0 by the midpoint of the second period in that game, but rallied with three goals in the 21:30 of regulation to force overtime. But all that went for naught when Nick Bonino netted the game-winner for the Pens in the extra session.
Washington went home for the summer and Pittsburgh went on to its fourth Stanley Cup title.
Monday’s Game 6 in Pittsburgh found the Capitals in exactly the same spot in the series, as the Pens were once again in prime position to eliminate Washington from the postseason. This time, the Caps didn’t let that happen.
“I’ve said it all along,” says Trotz. “Our group has [had] pretty good resolve, and we’ve grown through our past a little bit, I guess. We’ve been able to park things, and that’s good on our leaders and that’s good on our group.
“I think we’ve had a calmness since probably Game 3, a sense of calmness around what we’re doing. We’re having fun now. The fun part has been the obstacle, and the obstacle is a good team in Pittsburgh. We were down in the series; we started off 0-2. It’s good on the group. The group has been really, really strong.”
Terrific Trio – In scoring four goals to earn a 4-2 win in Game 5, the Capitals got scoring from three different lines. In scoring five goals to take a 5-2 win over the Pens in Game 6, the Caps got four goals from the members of one single line, the Nicklas Backstrom trio.
Backstrom supplied the backbreaking – and, as it turned out, game-winning – goal just 16 seconds into the third period. Earlier in the game, linemates T.J. Oshie (power-play goal in the first period) and Andre Burakovsky (even-strength strike in the second) scored, and Burakovsky would add a second goal later in the game as well.
Ahead of Saturday’s Game 5, Trotz flipped Burakovsky and Alex Ovechkin, putting Ovechkin with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. As noted above, the flip has sparked the Caps’ attack, which has now produced as much in the last two games of the series as it did in the first four games.
“We’re playing fast,” says Oshie of his line, “we’re doing a good job on the walls at getting pucks deep and getting pucks out of our end. Burky is a great skater and a really good goal scorer. He is creating space to get his shot off, and I think we all know how good that is. He has been a good complement to me and Nick.”
It’s The Little Things – Goals, assists and other scoresheet items are easy to see and to catalog, but so many more nuanced contributions go into the winning of hockey games, especially at this time of year. Several Caps were noteworthy for critical performances in Monday’s win.
In addition to his two assists, Evgeny Kuznetsov turned in a boss shift in the immediate aftermath of Burakovsky’s first goal. Kuznetsov blocked an Ian Cole point shot early in the shift, and then he outraced a Pittsburgh defender later in the shift to cancel out an icing.
In the third period, Kunzetsov showed off his cerebral ability, ragging the puck for 20 of 30 seconds during a delayed penalty situation, taking time off the clock against a potent Pens team that’s capable of scoring goals in bunches and in short periods of time.
Carlson had a similar shift just a couple minutes later, blocking a Chris Kunitz shot and then making a great indirect pass to himself that ultimately spurred a two-on-one rush for Oshie and Burakovsky.
In the third period, Wilson blocked two shots on the same shift, clearly putting his body in harm’s way on both of them. While that may not seem extraordinary, he did so on the very next shift after Carlson’s goal made it 4-0 with 8:43 left.
All of the little things and all of the big things added up to a 5-2 Washington win.
“That’s the key,” says Kuznetsov of the little things. “You can see so many good passes and great goals, but it’s tough to see when guys block shots and they do great backchecks. That, for me, is more important right now in this series. Whoever is going to do it more, that team is going to win.”
Multiple Men – Backstrom had a goal and an assist for his third multi-point game of the series and the 18
th of his NHL career. Don’t forget, Backstrom owned the Pens during the 2016-17 regular season, posting four goals and a dozen points in just four games against Pittsburgh.
With his goal on Monday, Backstrom passed Dale Hunter (25) on Washington’s all-time playoff goals ledger. With 22 career postseason assists on the power play, Backstrom has tied Scott Stevens for second on the Caps’ all-time list in that department.
Burakovsky put together his second consecutive multi-point game in the series, and he notched the second two-goal game of his playoff career. He had a two-goal game against the New York Rangers on May 6, 2015.
Oshie notched his third multi-point game of the postseason and the eighth of his playoff career on Monday.
Kuznetsov enjoyed the first multi-assist game of his NHL playoff career, and his fourth multi-point game in the postseason.
Four-On-Four Scores – With the game safely salted away in the final minutes of regulation, and with two teams skating four to a side, the Pens scored a pair of goals in a span of 52 seconds to spoil Braden Holtby’s shutout bid.
Washington’s four-on-four play has been an ongoing area of concern since the regular season, when the Caps were one of just three teams to go through the 82-game regular season without scoring a single four-on-four goal.
When it was all said and done, that was but a minor blemish in a game in which the goal was to extend the season for another couple of days.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have a little more of a complete game,” says Trotz. “We had a turnover [on the first one] and poor coverage [on the second]. But that’s easily fixed. The guys got a little loose late in the game on a four-on-four and [the Pens] capitalized. That was the one time I felt we got away from what we were doing.”
By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 23:43 in ice time … Carlson led the Caps with seven shots and seven shot attempts. With his goal, Carlson ties Sergei Gonchar (13) for second place on Washington’s postseason goals by defensemen list. Carlson also ties Mike Green (35) for fourth-most points by a Caps defenseman in postseason play … Wilson and Jay Beagle led the Caps with five hits each … Eller, Wilson and Kuznetsov led the Capitals with two blocked shots each … Beagle won 11 of 15 draws (73%) … Holtby won his 29
th career playoff game, pulling even at 29-29 over the course of his career in the postseason.