Goalie Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals pushes Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins 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)
Barry Trotz’s had a “Plan B” for his top line, and it panned out.
Rookie forward Jakub Vrana was moved from the third line to the top mid-game, and he recorded one of his two assists after the switch and scored the go-ahead goal. As a result, the Washington Capitals are a win away from the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday night at Capital One Arena.
Devante Smith-Pelly started the game on the top line in Tom Wilson’s place, but Trotz swapped him for Vranamidway through the second.
“We took a few penalties that put us in a little bit of a hole,” Trotz said. “I had Plan B and C and D today, just with all the different things. It worked out, I thought.”
With the game tied at three and five minutes left in regulation, Holtby made a clutch save against a charging Brian Dumoulin, and Kuznetsov passed the rebound up-ice to Alex Ovechkin on a 2-on-2 rush with Vrana. Ovechkin drew right of the net, deked and flipped the puck to Vrana in the slot. Matt Murray had his back to the play as Vrana’s easy wrist shot triggered roars in the rafters.
“Obviously it feels really (expletive) good,” Vrana said. “I try to stay cool. (Ovechkin) made a great play there. He just put it in front of the net, I was driving the net hard, try to get the rebound.”
When a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoff series starts out tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 goes on to win the series 78.9 percent of the time (202-54). The Capitals will have two chances to finish off the Penguins, starting with Game 6, Monday night in Pittsburgh.
The Capitals will seek to break the apparent curse the Penguins have laid over them in recent years, but Kuznetsovsaid he doesn’t care about the team’s chance to overcome its history against Pittsburgh.
“I just care about the game. We always focus game-to-game,” he said. “When you focus game-by-game and have a short memory and listen to the coaches, then you can be OK.”
The action in the opening minutes matched and heightened the building’s noticeable pre-game energy. The first two minutes alone saw Ovechkin take the first shot of the game on a bang-bang chance and Holtby stand on his head on a Penguin rush to force Riley Sheahan’s shots wide.
But it was Pittsburgh D-man Jamie Oleksiak who opened scoring in the third minute. Derick Brassard recovered a puck from the left corner and sent it to Oleksiak for a blue-line one-timer.
Late in the first, on the Capitals‘ second power play of the evening, Carlson scored on a slap shot from the high slot, assisted by Kuznetsov and Oshie.
Washington rode that wave into 5-on-5 hockey and struck again 33 seconds later. The Capitals scraped a puck out of a left-corner scrum and Vrana hit Connolly by the left circle for a goal.
But back-to-back penalties in the second period nearly doomed Washington. Ovechkin was called for his second slashing penalty of the night in the early minutes of the second period, and the Penguins used the window to tie it. Phil Kessel’s shot hit Sidney Crosby’s elbow and redirected past Holtby’s glove.
On the next Penguin power play, brought on by a Smith-Pelly tripping, Patric Hornqvist shoved a puck in the crease under Holtby’s pads. The Capitals have allowed a power-play goal in every game since their streak of 22 kills was broken in Game 3.
Midway through the second, Barry Trotz enacted “Plan B,” swapping Smith-Pelly with Vrana. Playing on the third line, Smith-Pelly was dinged for his second tripping penalty. By the third period, Smith-Pelly was temporarily dropped to the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Shane Gersich.
Although Washington took eight of the game’s first 10 shots, Pittsburgh caught up and outshot the Capitals 31-18 through two periods.
“Sometimes, not every period is gonna be perfect. Sometimes a team is gonna outshoot you,” Vrana said. “But we stayed positive and we kept pushing in the third. That’s what this group is all about. It’s strong group and we stay comfortable and confident and just win us the game.”
“The bench was everyone on the same page,” Kuznetsov said. “I love the way the coaches handle everything. Whole bench was positive. I really feel that third period was one piece. Didn’t matter who was on the ice. We handle everything.”
In the first minute of the third, Vrana found Kuznetsov behind two defenders and hit him with a long pass up the ice.Kuznetsov dangled and snuck it past Murray to tie the game at three.
“Kuzy (made) a great move on a breakaway,” Vrana said. “Those little inches, sometimes they just kind of win you game.”
Before Vrana’s go-ahead goal in the final minutes, the Capitals were also forced to play without Nicklas Backstrom, who left the bench halfway through the third due to what Trotz called an upper-body injury.
Oshie credited Lars Eller for filling in more with Backstrom off the ice.
“Lars stepped in there again and did a great job,” Oshie said. “You can’t replace No. 19, he’s just too special of a player, but Lars stepped into a bigger role there, he did a great job, not sure how long — that last 8 or 9 minutes there.”
Oshie and Eller tacked on empty-net goals in the last 90 seconds to polish off the win.
Trotz acknowledged Vrana has had to navigate adversity in his rookie year, referring partly to a stretch of 21 games playing on the second line in which he didn’t score a goal.
“I think the playoffs build a lot of character, they build confidence and Jake has stayed with it,” he said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of managing him and getting him to understand that there’s so many things you can contribute if you’re not just scoring.”