While all eyes were focused on Saturday’s triumphant return of Sidney Crosby, the Washington Capitals went to work and earned another day of post-season life. The Capitals will try to push the series to seven games with another win Monday night, but it seems history isn’t on their side.
Under head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have lost back-to-back games in the post-season only once. They’re 9-1 in playoff games following losses — 2-0 in that regard this year — and will surely be looking for a strong bounce-back effort.
This time last year, the Capitals — fresh off a strong Game 5 effort that kept their playoff run alive — saw their Presidents’ Trophy-winning season end in a Game 6 loss to Pittsburgh. Washington will have to shake the déjà vu and tune out the history narrative if they hope to re-write the script this time around.
With that in mind, here are the top storylines heading into Game 6:
Game 6: 7:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet, CBC
Getting their chances
Washington has been heavily outshooting Pittsburgh throughout the clubs’ second-round series. The Capitals have had the shot advantage in every game so far, topping 30 chances on net in all five contests, while Pittsburgh has reached the 30-shot plateau just once (during the Capitals’ Game 3 overtime win).
Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury held the Capitals’ lethal offensive corps at bay through the majority of the first four tilts, but the dam finally broke in Game 5 as Washington posted four goals — their highest total in the second round — to push Pittsburgh to Game 6.
The Penguins’ blue line will need a stronger effort if they hope to stifle the Capitals, as it seems the latter club’s big guns have woken up.
No more waiting on the captain
After an emotional Game 4 victory with captain Crosby and winger Conor Sheary both sidelined with concussions, the Penguins fumbled their first chance to close out the series in Game 5.
Pittsburgh’s key names may have been guilty of sitting back after No. 87 made his miraculous return — Crosby and Carl Hagelin were the only Penguins forwards to finish with more than two shots on net, while Olli Maatta was the only Penguins defender to earn more than one chance on Braden Holtby.
The Penguins’ main weapons broke through on the man-advantage but offered little resistance during even-strength play, a formula that didn’t prove fruitful against the surging Capitals.
Pittsburgh still boasts four of the top six scorers in the playoffs — Evgeni Malkin (17 points), Phil Kessel (13), Jake Guentzel (12), and Crosby (12) — but they’ll need each of those names at their best if they hope to close out the series Monday.
Battle behind the benches
Head coach Barry Trotz shuffled the deck ahead of Game 5, causing a frenzy at practice by moving captain Alex Ovechkin off the top line and into the bottom six with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Despite the chorus of jeers that followed, Trotz’s move paid off.
Ovechkin scored Washington’s final goal of Game 5, assisted by Eller, while Nicklas Backstrom netted the game-tying goal early in the third period, assisted by Ovechkin’s top-line replacement, Andre Burakovsky. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has done plenty of mixing and matching himself over the course of the season, striking gold in the unexpectedly potent combination of Guentzel and Crosby.
With the series on the line and both teams looking for their finest performance of the post-season, expect both bench bosses to flex their strategic muscle. At this point in the schedule, every decision has the potential to sway a series one way or another, and the matchup battle is no exception.
It’s do or die in Washington, and a must-win for a Penguins club looking to avoid Game 7 on the road with the momentum out of their hands. Who comes out on top?