Braden Holtby makes a save on a shot from Patric Hornqvist in Saturday's 3-1 win over the Penguins (NIck Wass/AP)
I picked the Penguins to beat Washington in six games. Things are right on schedule. The Capitals had to win twice, and they have. It’s not 2011, or 2014, or even 1975. This is a different team, and a different time. The Penguins have won 21 of their last 26 and haven’t lost two games in a row since mid-January. Panic and pessimism are not needed. Refreshing Penguins notes are. Dive in, and cool down.
Washington goalie Braden Holtby and the Capitals’ power play won Game 5. Other factors were relatively minor. The Penguins didn’t choke. They out-shot Washington 31-19 and got stymied on the road by the likely Vezina Trophy winner. That should not give rise to panic. It should engender more traffic in front of Holtby and less penalties, especially stupid ones.
The single biggest issue for the Penguins in this series is lack of production from the superstars. Evgeni Malkin has a goal and an assist. Sidney Crosby has two helpers. That’s not near enough. If the Penguins blow the series while those two continue to post meager stats, their legacy will suffer. Malkin and Crosby will start to be remembered more for what they didn’t do, than what they did. Malkin and Crosby are playing committed, unselfish, two-way hockey. But you can get somebody else to do that a lot cheaper.
Ian Cole perpetrated one of the season’s dumbest acts Saturday when he got called for a retaliatory slash on Washington meathead Tom Wilson at the 2:54 mark of the second period. The Capitals’ T.J. Oshie scored a power-play goal 66 seconds later to give Washington a 2-1 lead it wouldn’t lose. Wilson ran Cole, but Cole’s slash came way late. Nobody should be that selfish, let alone a bottom-pair defenseman.
Defenseman Kris Letang has been the Penguins’ best player in these playoffs. Whoever’s next is a distant second. He played 30 brilliant minutes in a losing effort Saturday. Letang just doesn’t disappoint, not even for a single shift.
Indianapolis let Peyton Manning go to Denver to pave the way for the “quarterback of the future,” Andrew Luck. In four years with Denver, Manning won a Super Bowl and got to another. Indianapolis’ best showing during that time was a loss in the AFC Championship. Remember that, and remember the Penguins’ rapidly closing window to win, when you want to ditch Marc-Andre Fleury for the “goalie of the future.” Fleury is 31 and has 3-4 more good years left, maybe more.
Lots of factors get discussed regarding the Penguins’ goaltending situation: Murray’s solid play, Fleury’s rust, “hot goalie,” etc. But who’s the better goalie? Doesn’t that matter? (It’s Fleury. He just had a career season, and Murray’s 21 NHL games aren’t enough to make me ignore that.)
In retrospect, it might have been better for the Capitals to make it 4-1 early in the third period Saturday. Coach Mike Sullivan might have been tempted to insert Fleury to see how he looked. Now, moving forward, it’s mostly guesswork.
Playing Murray for the rest of the series is the safe decision. Win or lose, it won’t invoke scrutiny from media and fans. That doesn’t make it the right decision.
For a “hot goalie,” Murray leaks in lots of soft goals. The Capitals’ Justin Williams added to that total with a five-hole dribbler to make it 3-1 on Saturday.
Holtby, on the other hand, made game-changing saves in the second period on Patric Hornqvist and Justin Schultz. Perhaps Holtby is the “hot goalie.”
Bryan Rust played almost 17 minutes Saturday. Conor Sheary, just over 14. Hornqvist played just 10:36, including only two shifts in the third period. Tell Sullivan these are the NHL playoffs, not the American Hockey League’s. Odd, because Hornqvist had scored in each of the last two games, and Sullivan rates him highly. Was Hornqvist injured? That makes more sense.
Some hockey “experts” want to play Alexander Ovechkin man-to-man when the Capitals go on the power play. I heard it described as a “triangle and one.” I wonder if Bill Russell can skate? This might sound like a good idea. But what happens if Ovechkin goes to the net and occupies a defenseman? If his man-to-man defender follows, the rest of the Capitals have scads of ice, and Ovechkin would be an effective net-front presence. There’s always a Plan B.
The Penguins’ Plan A should be to stay out of the penalty box. The Capitals had five power-play opportunities Saturday. That’s far too many.
This series was supposed to be tight, and it is. One team leads, three games to two, and the goal differential is even. It couldn’t be much closer.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).