Evgeny Kuznetsov #92 of the Washington Capitals celebrates with his teammates after scoring a third period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)
The setting was storybook for an elimination game, from the surprising return of Sidney Crosby to spark the Penguins to the stunning shakeup of the stars to shock the Capitals.
Where Crosby and Conor Sheary came back from concussions to solidify a Penguins lineup that survived their one-game absence, Capitals coach Barry Trotz pulled a head-scratcher by demoting captain Alex Ovechkin to the third line for Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal.
Then there's the curse.
The President's Trophy winners as the NHL's best regular-season team two years in a row, the Capitals have lost eight of nine playoff series to the Penguins and failed to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since Ovechkin's arrival in 2004.
That cloud hung over Verizon Center on Saturday and grew darker as the Penguins took a one-goal lead into the second intermission.
The Penguins had won all six games in these Stanley Cup playoffs in which they had led going into the third period, which meant 20 minutes separated the Capitals from another early ouster.
“You're going into the third period going, ‘Let's get this done.' There was pretty good conviction in our room,” Trotz said. “I would say there's a lot of resiliency, and the leadership did all the right things for us. They really did.”
The Capitals' leadership — and, no, that's not an oxymoron — delivered in the third period of their 4-2 victory over the Penguins.
Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin scored goals to make this a 3-2 series that returns Monday to PPG Paints Arena.
“Ideally, you close it out,” said Crosby, who assisted on Phil Kessel's second-period, power-play goal.
“You've got the lead going into the third. That's what you want to do. But it didn't happen. You've got to learn from it. We've got an opportunity going back home. You've got to learn from situations like this.”
The Penguins had a chance to put the Capitals away, especially when they appeared to be in disarray.
Instead, they left the door open for a comeback. And the Capitals have won Game 6 in four of their last five series when trailing 3-2. That includes a 5-4 overtime win over the Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal at Civic Arena.
The one exception was the Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory in Game 6 against the Capitals last year, courtesy of a Nick Bonino goal.
“I think (when) you play the best team in the league, you don't expect to sweep them or win in five. You expect a long, hard series,” Bonino said. “That's what our mindset's been, no matter what.”
Ironically, Bonino played a part in the Capitals' comeback. After Backstrom tied the score at 2-2 at 2:49 of the third period, Bonino had his best scoring chance with a shot from the slot. But Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who made 12 of his 20 saves in the third period, blocked it with his glove and leg pad.
For the first time in this series, Holtby outplayed Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. As we've learned in the playoffs, the team with the best goalie tends to win.
Holtby made back-to-back, point-blank saves on Sheary and Bryan Rust, then stoned the top goal-scorer of the playoffs, Jake Guentzel.
“We gave them life,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Give them credit. They've got good players. They scored a couple of key goals to get them back in the game. But I thought a lot of third period, we had some pushback. We had a lot of high-quality chances we didn't convert.”
The Penguins' best chance to win came down to the same tactic they employed in Game 3: pulling Fleury and hoping to score two goals in the final two minutes. Only this time it didn't work.
“It's always the most challenging game,” Crosby said of elimination games. “I think we had the right mindset coming in, and I think we went into the third with the right mentality and just weren't able to grab that momentum back when they tied it. We'll learn from it and go back home.”
There is still a shot at a storybook ending, but the Penguins have to make sure that it's not about the Capitals lifting their curse.