"It's supposed to be fun, the man says 'Play Ball' not 'Work Ball' you know." - Willie Stargell
Sunday, May 08, 2016
Icy-calm Washington Capitals bring the goods and close in on Pittsburgh Penguins
Scott BurnsideESPN Senior Writerhttp://espn.go.com/nhl/May 8, 2016 Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) stops a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) during the first period of Game 5 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, Saturday. (AP Photo/Nick Wass).
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For a few days, at least, the familiar script of disappointment and failure has been rolled up and stuffed into a side drawer for the Washington Capitals.
For a few days, until the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins tangle again in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, we can stop heaping dirt on the Capitals, and they can imagine themselves to be something other, something greater, than their history.
Before Saturday's 3-1 victory that reduced the Penguins' series lead from 3-1 to 3-2, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz insisted we were all going to learn a lot about his Capitals team in Game 5.
He wasn't wrong.
And while this was far from a sure thing, this was as complete an effort as the Capitals had delivered in this achingly close series that had inexplicably gotten away from them through the first four games.
It was the first time the team had faced elimination in these playoffs and, more importantly, might have been the first real test of adversity that has faced the NHL's best regular-season team by a country mile. And while they hoped they knew how they would respond, hoping and knowing are two different things.
"After the game, it was something that was just talked about really quick: that that was really the first bit of adversity that our team's had to face. And I think that we learned that we can handle it," said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner.
"We had a really, really good meeting yesterday. We all got together after practice and just talked about it. And we just learned that we're really, really tight. No one wants to be finished playing right now. And I think you're going to see probably the best hockey that this team's played this year."
That the must-have win was sparked by two of the offseason additions that were meant to make this Capitals team different -- T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams -- cannot be overlooked.
Oshie scored his second winner of the series, but it was Williams who emerged as the public conscience of the Capitals after they fell behind 3-1 in the series after an overtime loss in Game 4 in Pittsburgh.
He is a three-time Stanley Cup winner and a man who has consistently delivered in the clutch, earning him the moniker Mr. Game 7. On Saturday, he was Mr. Game 5, which was just as good as important at this stage of the proceedings for the Capitals.
Williams gave the Capitals a 3-1 lead with a goal off a turnover midway through the second period. It was their first two-goal lead of the series and allowed the Capitals their first moments of controlling a game in the series.
"You slowly try and push the needle towards them and put a little pressure on them," Williams explained.
Not that Williams was suggesting the Penguins are under the gun. They still can put this series away at home on Tuesday night.
"I mean, listen: It's a seven-game series," Williams added. "I don't believe in [pressure] one way or another, but it's a little more pressure being up 3-2 than it is 3-1, yeah."
They weren't perfect.
Nicklas Backstrom negated an early surge with a mindless offensive-zone penalty that led to the Penguins' first power-play goal of the series and set the Capitals on their heels for much of the first period.
Line juggling by Trotz had some effect, although the Capitals managed just one 5-on-5 goal.
They were also outshot badly, 31-19, although the shot attempts were much closer -- 69-58 in favor of Pittsburgh -- with the Caps credited with a whopping 23 missed shots.
The power play did click after entering the game just 1-for-12 and provided the game winner by Oshie.
"When we have pressure, it's our time," Ovechkin said after turning his best game of the series, scoring once and adding an assist on the winner.
"The guys responded well. Great group of guys here. We're stepping up [for] each other and believing in each other. We just have to do the same, play hard ..."
In the end, no one gets a parade for digging themselves halfway out of a hole.
And no one gets a gold star for having a nice meeting where you agree you don't want to hang up the blades for the summer.
Still, we've talked so much over the years about a Caps team that hasn't ever been able to find its way out of the wilderness, a team that hasn't ever really discovered a way to capture these moments, so they've earned a couple of days of feeling good about themselves, even though they'll get the same view of the abyss on Tuesday night as they did on Saturday.
"It's the first time you realize that season could be done," Alzner said of the moments leading into Game 5. "And we've said it throughout the whole year: Maybe it's different for a couple of guys, but I think a lot of us think this is the best team we've been on, not only on the ice, but off the ice. And then when you actually talk about the fact that things could be done. I think it injects some new life into you, and that was what it was."