Goalie Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals makes a save on a shot by Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on April 29, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - Amid the cheers, the whipping towels and dinging cowbells at Capital One Arena, there was also an exhale. Washington Capitals forward Brett Connolly scored on a partial breakaway, and the sight of the puck in the net and a red goal light brought both joy and relief. Washington wouldn't be squandering a two-goal lead, because the team now was up three.
The Capitals ultimately won by that margin, 4-1, and with the next two games in Pittsburgh, Washington has tied the second-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Penguins at one game apiece, in large part thanks to goaltender Braden Holtby's 32 saves and some good fortune with video reviews. Most importantly, the Capitals continued to build on their lead rather than cling to it.
"You can see what happen last game when we get the lead 2-0, and they come back and win the game," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "They're experienced team.
"They're not going to give up and they're not going to give easy play for us. We have to earn it. Today I think we play a solid game. Everybody was in, and we get the result."
After 20 minutes, the Capitals found themselves in a familiar, uneasy position. For the second straight game, Washington was up 2-0, but the team had squandered that kind of cushion three times in its previous seven playoff games, including Game 1 against the Penguins.
The postseason had been miserable for Connolly a year ago. He played in just seven games, a healthy scratch for the other six as Washington opted to play seven defensemen with 11 forwards. When Connolly did play, his ice time was limited. This playoff run has taken an opposite arc. He has gotten more responsibility with a promotion to the third line. He had been unable to convert on numerous chances in past games, but with the partial breakaway in the second period Sunday he didn't miss, and his wrist shot lifted the Capitals to a 3-0 lead 2:08 into the second period.
"Even when we go up three, you've got to keep playing against this team because they can hurt you in a lot of different ways," Connolly said.
Pittsburgh's Kris Letang scored roughly 11 minutes later with a point shot while Holtby had two layers of screens in front of him. The Penguins seemed to score again midway through the third period, when Patric Hornqvist jammed in a wraparound attempt by Sidney Crosby. But the officials didn't call it a goal on the ice, and a long video review followed. Holtby had stopped the puck with his pad, but it was unclear whether it had managed to cross the goal line anyway. The video review didn't provide a definitive replay, so the Penguins didn't receive the tally, another break for Washington in a game of them.
"Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes not," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We got lucky there."
The Capitals had caught one break before the game even started. With Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and winger Carl Hagelin both out with injuries in Game 1, Washington didn't take advantage of the opportunity, a theme in past postseason series between the teams. A year ago, the Capitals lost the game Crosby missed with a concussion. The year before that, top defenseman Letang was suspended for a game, and the Capitals didn't win then, either.
Malkin was Pittsburgh's leading scorer this season with 42 goals and 56 assists in 78 games, and Washington got another opportunity when Malkin's undisclosed lower-body injury kept him out of Game 2, too. With Crosby and Malkin on the team, the Penguins have never lost a playoff series in which they took a two-games-to-none lead.
"Obviously, he's a top player. There's no question about it," Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said before the game. "But at the same time, it doesn't really matter. We've just got to win the game."
Washington again got the strong start it wanted; the team has scored first in all but one of its eight playoff games. Less than two minutes into the game, Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Hornqvist raced for a puck that had slid into Pittsburgh's zone. Hornqvist got his stick on it, but he inadvertently passed it to Ovechkin, who quickly shot it past Matt Murray's glove for the first goal of the game. That was Ovechkin's second goal in as many games and his third point.
Then, with five seconds left in a power play, rookie Jakub Vrana maneuvered through three Pittsburgh sticks to get to the front of the net and beat Murray glove side. That seemed like a target for Washington; Connolly's goal also was to Murray's glove side. The Penguins challenged for goaltender interference because Connolly's stick had made contact with Murray's leg before Vrana's goal, but the league determined that Connolly's actions didn't impair Murray from making the save, so the goal stood.
"Honestly, I didn't really even know that I did that," Connolly said. "I was shocked. It's just a quick reaction. You're kind of being intense, but it was way before. . . . We deserved that break. We've been playing so well. We deserved a break tonight."
And then the Capitals made their own break, with Connolly getting the all-important third goal, insurance the series would be tied.