WASHINGTON—It’s a little challenging, because they’re wearing helmets and visors. But someone should have checked to see if the Washington Capitals who took the ice for the third period of Saturday night’s Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins were the same guys who solemnly trudged to the locker room 15 minutes earlier.
Those players looked slow and beaten after being outshot 18–5 and outscored 2–0 in the second period by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. They took needles penalties and seemed almost resigned to moving within another soul-crushing loss of their 10th defeat in 11 all-time playoff series against Pittsburgh.
Who were the impostors who scored four unanswered goals (two of them empty-netters) and climbed to the threshold of exorcizing its demons?
“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” said T.J. Oshie, whose empty-net goal helped seal Washington’s 6–3 victory. “We know the history. We know what’s happened in the past. But there’s a lot of belief and trust in this room. [Coach Barry] Trotz came in and gave a little speech, and we went from there.”
Talk is cheap; actions speak much more eloquently. And nothing expressed the Capitals’ resiliency than Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-tying goal 52 seconds into the third period. It set the tone for a dominant 20 minutes for a team that has had little reason for postseason confidence.
“We got some momentum early, and that didn’t hurt,” Trotz said. “… There’s a lot of swings in the playoffs.”
None was more dramatic that the play that set up rookie Jakob Vrana’s game-winning goal. The Penguins seemed ready to regain the advantage when Brian Dumoulin broke in on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
Holtby had already played the best game you’ll ever see by a goalie who allowed three scores, helping keep his team within striking distance during its dreadful second period. Now he made a spectacular pad save on Dumoulin. That set up a 2-on-1 breakaway, with Alex Ovechkin feeding Vrana for the deciding goal.
“To me, the backbone of your team is the goaltender,” Trotz said. “He kept the game reachable until we were able to regroup and come back.”
It wasn’t just a bad period that needed redemption. Veteran defenseman John Carlson said Game 4, a 3–1 loss in Pittsburgh, was “probably our worst” in terms of poise and performance.
Already playing without first-line forward Tom Wilson, who was serving the second game of a three-game NHL suspension for questionable hits, the Capitals lost standout center Nicklas Bakstrom to an upper-body injury in that ill-fated second period.