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

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

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

Jakub Vrana delivers and Capitals have two chances to clinch
by Isabelle Khurshudyan

The Washington Capitals’ game-saving — and maybe playoff-saving — goal came from a 22-year-old rookie unburdened by the organization’s tortured postseason history. Jakub Vrana was 2 years old the last time the Capitals got past the second round. He was a scratch in the first round of this postseason. He barely saw the ice at the start of this series. He was a hero Saturday night.

In a tied third period, Vrana followed Alex Ovechkin down the ice, and after Ovechkin skated to the right of Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray to pull him out of position, Ovechkin lightly put a pass into the slot for Vrana, who tapped the puck into a wide-open net as if it was no big deal. He tried to keep that composure as he stood in front of a line of reporters in the locker room after the game, but then he showed the youth and exuberance that has made him a crucial piece of this Capitals team.

“Obviously, it feels really [expletive] good,” Vrana said quickly as he took a deep breath.

That goal stood as the game-winner in Washington’s 6-3 victory over the Penguins. T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller added late empty-net goals to secure the result, and the Capitals are now one win away from advancing to the conference finals for a first time in 20 years. Saturday’s victory came because of a key midgame adjustment from Coach Barry Trotz, who promoted Vrana to the top line beside Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov.

“I think the playoffs build a lot of character,” Trotz said. “They build confidence, and Jake has stayed with it. He’s had stretches this year where he’s gone 21 games without even a goal on our second line, playing substantial minutes. For a young guy to battle through that and navigate a young career, sometimes you could get a little frustrated. I think we’ve really done a really good job of managing him and getting him to understand that there’s so many things that you can contribute if you’re not just scoring.

“I think he’s learned that, he’s settled in, and he’s a contributing player now.”

Just 52 seconds into the third period, Kuznetsov got to flap his wings. He collected a pass from Vrana in the neutral zone, and with Pittsburgh’s top defensive pairing caught out of position, Kuznetsov got a breakaway, beating Murray with a backhand shot through his legs. Then, in a celebration not seen since the Capitals played the Penguins last postseason, Kuznetsov lifted one leg and imitated a bird as he fanned his arms up and down.

But just as Washington started to play its best hockey of the game in the third period, center Nicklas Backstrom left the bench and went to the locker room with an “upper-body” injury. Something seemed off with him all game, as center Chandler Stephenson oddly took the faceoffs for Backstrom. The Capitals are already down two regular top-six forwards with Andre Burakovsky injured and Tom Wilson suspended for one more game, so an injury to Backstrom could be devastating.

But even playing down a forward, the Capitals showed a resiliency not seen in past postseasons. It started with goaltender Braden Holtby, who had made 28 saves through two periods. He saved a point-blank shot by defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and that led to Vrana and Ovechkin’s rush up the ice for the game-winning goal.

Trotz had seemed hesitant to trust Vrana before this game. He can be a defensive liability, especially against Pittsburgh’s superstar forward corps, but he also has dynamic speed and offensive upside the Capitals haven’t had in past series against the Penguins.

“Obviously it means a lot when the coach trusts you for a player,” Vrana said. “You just get confidence. It’s a big responsibility. You’ve just got to make sure you go out there and get those little details right.”

Both Trotz and Ovechkin acknowledged that the top line needed to be better after it struggled in Game 4, just the third playoff game in Ovechkin’s career in which he didn’t record a single shot on goal. He rectified that on the first shift Saturday, putting the first puck on net in the game with a wrist shot 15 feet in front of the net. Murray saved it, and momentum seemed to favor the Penguins when Conor Sheary screened Holtby as defenseman Jamie Oleksiak’s point shot scored 2:23 into the game.

Ovechkin finished with three shots on goal by the end of the first period, and it was just his presence that allowed the Capitals to tie the score. Pittsburgh’s Dominik Simon was whistled for tripping in the offensive zone, and with the Penguins’ penalty kill shading Ovechkin, defenseman John Carlson had plenty of room as he ripped a shot past Murray’s glove.

Thirty-three seconds after his goal, Washington took the lead. Vrana won a puck battle along the wall and set up Brett Connolly in the high slot. The puck went off Patric Hornqvist’s hand before fluttering through Murray’s legs.

But Washington’s penalty kill seemed to miss Wilson, suspended for three games after an illegal check to the head in Game 3 of the series, and as the Capitals took damaging penalties — hooking and slashing minors by Ovechkin and two tripping infractions by Devante Smith-Pelly — the Penguins got four straight man-advantage opportunities. They scored on two of them to take a 3-2 lead into second intermission, and the Capitals were fortunate to be down by just a goal through 40 minutes. Pittsburgh had outshot Washington 18-5 in the second period.

The Capitals seemed mellow after their loss in Game 4, and Trotz had opted against making any changes to his lineup. But as the Capitals found themselves a period away from being pushed to the brink of elimination, Trotz started to make adjustments. He then moved Vrana to the first line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.

Less than a minute into the third period, Vrana’s pass sprung Kuznetsov for a breakaway, the game-tying goal. He then delivered the game-winning one shortly after.

“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” Oshie said. “We know the history. We know what’s happened to us in the past. But right now, we have a lot of belief and a lot of trust in each other.”

Top takeaways

Top-line Jakub Vrana: Go ahead and pencil Jakub Vrana into the Capitals’ first line for Game 6. Heck, use a Sharpie. With Devante Smith-Pelly filling in for the suspended Tom Wilson for the second consecutive game, the Capitals’ first line took as many penalties (4) as shots on goal through two periods on Saturday after Alex Ovechkin and Smith-Pelly were held without a shot in Game 4. Capitals coach Barry Trotz turned to speedy Jakub Vrana in the third period and the rookie responded, assisting on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-tying goal less than a minute into the final frame and scoring the game-winner off an assist from Ovechkin with 4:38 to play.

Advantage Capitals, history and all: Teams that have won Game 5 of a best-of-seven series tied two games apiece have gone on to win the series 202 out of 256 times (78.9 percent), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Capitals will have two chances to clinch their first spot in the Eastern Conference finals since 1998, with the first coming Monday at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. Forget about the fact that that Washington blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers the last time they were position to advance in 2015; this sure beats digging out of a 3-1 hole as the Capitals were forced to do against the Penguins in the second round in each of the last two years.

Braden Holtby was a beast: As good as Vrana was in the third period, Braden Holtby was Washington’s No. 1 star. He turned away 12 of 13 Penguins shots in the first period, including golden opportunities in front of the net by Derick Brassard and Sidney Crosby. After allowing a pair of power play goals in the second, he shut out Pittsburgh on eight shots in the third and finished with a series-high 36 saves.

Overcoming adversity and absences:
 The Capitals were thoroughly outplayed in the second period, as Pittsburgh outscored Washington 2-0 and outshot the home team 18-5. “You’re in your own building, with a chance to go up 3-2 against the two-time Stanley Cup champions,” NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said during the second intermission. “If that’s not motivating enough, then I don’t know what is. And then you come out in the second period and you completely lay an egg.” The Capitals redeemed themselves in the third period, despite playing the second half of the frame without Nicklas Backstrom.

Another power play goal: The Capitals’ power play unit hasn’t been as dominant as it was in the first round against Columbus, but Washington lit the lamp with the man advantage for a fourth straight game. John Carlson celebrated the birth of his second child on Friday with his third goal of the playoffs on a slap shot to tie the game late in the first period, joining some impressive company in the process.

And more breathing room: After a breathless game, Washington capped their victory with not one, but two empty-net goals. Lars Eller ended the scoring in the Capitals’ 6-3 with with Washington’s second empty-net goal of the night with five seconds remaining. Game 6 — the first of two chances to clinch the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 1998 — comes Monday in Pittsburgh.

Breathing room: T.J. Oshie’s empty-netter with 1:31 to play gave the Capitals a 5-3 lead and sent the Capital One Arena crowd into a tizzy. Barring a miraculous Penguins comeback, Washington will head back to Pittsburgh with a three-games-to-two lead.

Caps take the lead: A late lead for the Caps: Seconds after Braden Holtby denied Brian Dumoulin’s backhand attempt from point-blank range, the Capitals took off the other way. Alex Ovechkin skated into the Pittsburgh zone along the right side and found Jakub Vrana in front of the net. The 22-year-old rookie buried a shot past Matt Murray for his second goal of the playoffs and a 4-3 Washington lead with 4:38 to play.

Vrana, who was promoted to the top line mid-game, also assisted on the tying goal by Kuznetsov.

Nicklas Backstrom out: If the Capitals are to win Game 5, they may have to do it without Nicklas Backstrom. After taking only three faceoffs in the first two periods, Backstrom was missing from the Washington bench in the third. There was no immediate word about an injury to the Capitals center, who blocked a Jamie Oleksiak shot in the second period.

Caps keep the pressure on: The Capitals have doubled the Penguins in shots (10-5) in the first 10-plus minutes of the third period, but none of them have come from Alex Ovechkin, whose only three shots on goal came in the first 20 minutes of the game.

The ice is tilting: After the Penguins dominated the second period, the third has mostly belonged to the Capitals. It took Washington less than a minute to score the equalizer and Barry Trotz’s crew has an 8-4 advantage in shots with more than six minutes gone in the penalty-free final period of regulation.

And we’re tied: That was fast. Fifty-two seconds into the third period, Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game on a breakaway, going five-hole against Matt Murray after receiving a long pass from Jakub Vrana.

End Period 2: Penguins 3, Capitals 2

For the second consecutive game, the Capitals will be chasing the Penguins in the third period. Pittsburgh turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead with a pair of power play goals in the second period to quiet the Capital One Arena crowd. A Sidney Crosby hooking penalty put a premature end to the Penguins’ third power play of the frame, but the Capitals failed to score on their ensuing abbreviated man advantage. Pittsburgh dominated the second period, outshooting Washington 18-5.

Holtby is huge: The score would be a lot worse for Washington if Holtby weren’t standing tall in the net. He’s stopped all 11 of Pittsburgh’s shots in the slot and the crease at even strength and seven of nine (!) when his team has to kill a penalty. Patric Hornqvist has a team-high six high-danger chances, three on the power play and three at even strength.

Washington, meanwhile, has just three high-danger chances of their own, two of those at even strength

Penguins taking control: The Penguins weren’t on the power play, but it sure seemed like they were late in the second period, as Pittsburgh peppered Braden Holtby with shot after shot during an especially long shift spent almost entirely in the Capitals’ zone. With 4:38 remaining in the period, the Penguins have a 29-17 advantage in shots.

Caps shuffle the lines: It was a question entering the game how long Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz would stick with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line if things weren’t working in the Capitals’ favor. Midway through the second period, Jakub Vrana stepped in for Smith-Pelly opposite Alex Ovechkin. The results on the first shift were mixed.

Pens back in front: A save, another penalty, and a goal. Braden Holtby stoned Carl Hagelin on the first one-on-one breakaway of the game, gloving his slapper seven minutes into the second period. Another Penguins power play followed, as Devante Smith-Pelly was whistled for tripping Brian Dumoulin along the boards, and for the second consecutive time with the man advantage this period, Pittsburgh found the back of the net. Patric Hornqvist jammed a rebound between Holtby’s pads for his fifth goal of the playoffs and a 3-2 Penguins lead with 12:15 to play in the second.

Even again: Alex Ovechkin was assessed his second two-minute minute minor for slashing less than five minutes into the second period, and this time, the Penguins made Washington pay. Phil Kessel’s shot from the wing deflected off Sidney Crosby’s glove and past Braden Holtby for Crosby’s ninth goal of the postseason with 15:17 to play in the frame, knotting the score at 2-2.

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