How the Caps beat the Pittsburgh Penguins
How the Caps beat the Pittsburgh Penguins
For the first time since 1994, the Capitals have beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. After getting eliminated the last two straight seasons by the Penguins, Washington finally returned the favor as they dispatched Pittsburgh in six games and ended their bid for a third straight Stanley Cup. It is only the second time in 11 postseason meetings the Caps were able to defeat their rivals. Here are the biggest reasons why the Caps are headed to the conference final for the first time since 1998.
Braden Holtby out-dueling Matt Murray
Against a team with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, etc., the Caps had to have the edge in goaltending to win. Braden Holtby was brilliant throughout the series. He got the big saves when the Caps needed it and outplayed his counterpart in Matt Murray. For the series, Holtby posted a .921 save percentage, well above Murray's .905.
No one could watch this series and argue that Alex Ovechkin can't perform in the playoffs. In six games, Ovechkin scored three goals and seven points. He scored the game-winner in Game 3 and tallied the primary assist on the game-winning goal in Game 5 and the series-clinching goal in Game 6.
Washington got zero goals from their bottom six forwards in last year's series against Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin scored once while on the third line, but no one really counts that for obvious reasons. This year they got two goals from Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana and one from Chandler Stephenson, Lars Eller and Alex Chiasson. Pittsburgh meanwhile, got none. Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Patrick Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin accounted for all of the Penguin's forward goals.
Game 1 was the quintessential Capitals-Penguins game of old. The Capitals dominated for 55 minutes, Pittsburgh rattled off three quick goals in a stretch of 4:49 and won the game. At that point, it did not seem likely that this year was going to be different. Why would you? But Washington battled back and they did so again and again this series. Alex Ovechkin scored less than 90 seconds into Game 2 to help put Game 1 in the rearview. The Caps were trailing in the third period of Game 3 in Pittsburgh and rallied back to win in regulation. A Tom Wilson suspension left the team with no clear answers on the top line and they still won two out of three games during his suspension. In Game 6, the Caps were missing three of their top six forwards and still managed to close out the series on the road. The Caps of 2016 and 2017 did not have that kind of resiliency.
The Capitals dominated the first three games of the series and all anyone was talking about was Tom Wilson. The Penguins seemed a lot more concerned with him than they did with the fact that they were being outplayed. Wilson played on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, but the guy the Penguins had to account for was Wilson. When he was suspended for his hit to Zach Aston-Reese, the Capitals rallied around him. He was a major agitator against Pittsburgh and a major boost of energy to the Caps, both on the ice and off.
Alex Ovechkin's late goal in Game 3
After splitting Game 1 and Game 2, it was absolutely critical that the Caps win at least one game in Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin made sure they got that win in Game 3 as he scored an incredible goal with 67 seconds left in regulation to give the Caps the win. Ovechkin was on a 2-on-1 rush with Nicklas Backstrom. When Backstrom fed him the puck, Ovechkin hit it off the post, but had the presence of mind and the hand-eye coordination to bat the puck out of midair into the net.
Jakub Vrana's Game 5 heroics
When Tom Wilson was suspended, Washington needed to find someone who could play right wing on the top line next to Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Barry Trotz originally elected to put Devante Smith-Pelly there to give the line some defensive balance, but the offensive chemistry wasn't there. Midway through Game 5, he moved Vrana up to the top line and Vrana sparked the comeback. Vrana launched Kuznetsov on a breakaway to tie the game just 52 seconds into the third period and then scored the game-winner himself with less than five minutes left to play. His performance led Washington to a critical Game 5 win when the series was tied at 2.
Barry Trotz's Game 6 gameplan
Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovky and Tom Wilson were all out of the lineup for Game 6. The Capitals had a chance to finally put away the Penguins, but they were on the road and had an undermanned lineup that featured two rookies making their playoff debut in Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker. They would have to play a perfect game to win. And they did. The Caps completely slowed the game down and frustrated the fast-paced Pittsburgh offense. In over 65 minutes of play, the Capitals allowed only 22 shots on goal. The only goal of the game for the Penguins came on a Kris Letang shot that deflected in off Chandler Stephenson. Trotz had dialed up a phenomenal game plan that the team ran to perfection to make sure they were not blown out of the building by Pittsburgh's offense. Even missing three of their top six forwards, the Caps were still able to finish off the Penguins and they didn't even need a seventh game to do it.