Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Something was missing Monday night at PPG Paints Arena, and it wasn't just the desired desperation needed by the Penguins to clinch this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Nor was it merely the marquee matchup of the NHL's premier players of the past decade as the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin storyline has failed to meet its billing.
The Penguins simply didn't get enough scoring chances in the 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6, whether in even strength or on a power play in which they didn't register shots with the man-advantage in the first two periods.
Mostly, the Penguins are really, really missing Kris Letang.
They masked the absence of their best defenseman late in the regular season by taxing the ice time of other blue-liners thanks to the depth trades for Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit and the call-up of Chad Ruhwedel.
Mike Sullivan looked like a mastermind in the postseason with a game plan that required his defenders to absorb hits, block shots and clear the crease for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
But that strategy has taken its toll on those defensemen and, as a result, the breakout. That's where Letang separated himself, in starting the offensive rush.
So a Penguins team that boasts four of the top six scorers in the Stanley Cup playoffs suddenly couldn't muster any semblance of an offense with a chance to clinch. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel combined for a total of six shots.
That the Capitals outshot the Penguins (26-18) was no surprise. It's been that way all series, if not more lopsided. But the Penguins mustered only three shots in the first period and nine through two periods. Where Sullivan is fond of saying, “Just play,” Penguins fans were crying, “Just shoot.”
“We have to do a better job of hanging onto pucks coming out of our end zone, making good decisions through the neutral zone,” Sullivan said. “But when we do put the puck in, we've got to do a better job of where we put it. We've got to go in cooperatively so we can hang onto the puck.”
The Penguins had yet to register a shot on goal when Capitals winger T.J. Oshie scored on the power play for a 1-0 lead at 12 minutes, 41 seconds of the first period, a tic-tac-toe goal assisted by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom.
It was the first of five Capitals goals, none involving their superstar winger. Not only has Ovechkin been relatively quiet with two goals and five points in six games, but Crosby has been only slightly better, with three goals and seven points in five games.
Of course, the defining moment and, perhaps, turning point of this series involved Crosby's concussion on a first-period cross-check by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. It caused Crosby to miss the remainder of Game 3 and all of Game 4 before returning.
Crosby got another scare late in the first period when he was knocked off his skates and crashed head-first into the end boards. Crosby was slow to get to his knees but remained in the game. However, he registered only two attempts and one shot on goal.
Problem was, the Penguins had almost triple the turnovers (11) the Capitals (four) had, and that disrupted their discipline at both ends of the ice.
“We turned the puck over and started chasing the game,” Crosby said. “We were trying to climb back into the game and started taking chances. We were probably guilty of making a few mistakes early on and then probably chasing our mistakes after that.”
Now, after twice losing with the chance to clinch, Sullivan must solve the scoring drought for Game 7 at Washington, which is one win away from overcoming its postseason curse against the Penguins.
Never before have the Capitals beaten the Penguins in three consecutive games in the playoffs. This is the Capitals' chance, as Barry Trotz has been saying all series, to go where they've never gone.
And this is the Penguins' shot to go back to what they do best, but only if rediscover how to score.