Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins has the puck stolen by T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Mike Sullivan wasn't alone in talking about how much there was to like about the way the Penguins played in Game 5.
The Penguins coach said “it might have been our best game of the series” against the Washington Capitals.
Defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin and goalie Matt Murray all called it a great game for the Penguins, who were the better team for the majority of it.
Just not when it mattered most.
The Capitals overcame a one-goal deficit in the third period for a 6-3 victory at Capital One Arena to push the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins to the brink of elimination.
“I think our game was great,” Letang said. “Just a few mistakes, and they capitalized on them.”
That the Capitals capitalized by twice beating the Penguins' top defensive pairing and goaltender in the third period of such a critical game in this second-round series is troubling.
“That's playoffs for you,” Dumoulin said. “You think you're going well. All of a sudden, they can execute one play and score.”
The biggest came 52 seconds into the third period on a defensive breakdown between Letang and Dumoulin. Their miscommunication allowed a stretch pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored the tying goal on a breakaway backhand.
That quickly, the Capitals erased a second period Sullivan said “might be the best period we've played in a long time.”
After outplaying the Capitals for the first 18 minutes of the game, the Penguins allowed two goals in the final 1:38 of the first period.
They turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the second, dominating the offensive zone and scoring two power-play goals. They didn't just get strong play from Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel but also from their fourth line.
“We did a lot of good things out there,” Sullivan said. “It's hard to win in the playoffs. Momentum can be a funny thing. They get an early goal in the third period on a breakdown on our part, and they get some life.
“But I thought we pushed back. It wasn't a case where we spent a lot of time in our end zone. We pushed back, but we didn't get the result.”
That's supposed to be the Capitals' line in this rivalry, isn't it?
Sullivan has talked repeatedly the past two seasons about the Penguins' resiliency and resolve in explaining their ability to overcome obstacles and find ways to win in the postseason.
What we saw Saturday night was a role reversal, as it was the Penguins who played an incomplete game. They outperformed the Capitals, except when it counted. They lost because of lapses.
Dumoulin had a perfect chance to score the go-ahead goal, with a shot in the slot. But Washington goalie Braden Holtby turned it away, and Alex Ovechkin set up Jakub Vrana in the slot for the winner.
“If I score that,” Dumoulin said, “it's a different game.”
That Dumoulin didn't and the Capitals did was startling, given the playoff history between these teams. That Washington took a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series isn't as surprising as what Capitals coach Barry Trotz said afterward.
“There's going to be swings in the game, and it's how you handle those swings,” Trotz said. “In the second, I don't think we handled it as well as we have in the playoffs. That is a great moment for us because we got it back together. We're recognizing these moments.
“It's hard in this league to sustain long periods of really good play because there's really good teams right now. You're going to have to take their best punch and, hopefully, you're able to counter. I thought we were able to do that in the third. I liked our third. I thought we had the right attitude. We were pretty determined. All the things you need to win hockey games, we brought it.”
That sounds like something Sullivan would say and something the Penguins would do in the playoffs, not the ever-collapsing Capitals.
Now, the Penguins have no choice but to play their best game and their best period when it matters most.
If they don't get the result, how well the Penguins played won't matter at all.