Well, that was an ass-kicking. Two games ago the Capitals were all but dead and buried, their obituaries prepared (and sometimes even published). A lot can change in two games. After last night’s 5-2 road beatdown of the Penguins, they are one win away from making it further in the playoffs than the Ovechkin/Backstrom/Alzner/Carlson Caps have ever been before.
“It’s right where we want it,” Nicklas Backstrom said, though obviously where they’d ideally want this series was over, possibly even a game or two ago. Though the series is tied through six games, and each team has scored 18 goals, the play has been far from even: the Capitals lead the Penguins 200-133 in shots on goal, a massive gap in a stat that strongly tends to correlate with possession and with goalscoring. That’s 11 more shots per game for Washington. How on earth is this team not already waiting for its conference finals opponent?
“In parts of the first two games, we played really, really well and didn’t get rewarded for it,” said Matt Niskanen, and it’s been a combination of things. The Penguins’ blueliners had been blocking shots. Marc-Andre Fleury had been outstanding while Braden Holtby’s play had been lacking, roles that have reversed as the series has gone along. Then there’s good old-fashioned puck luck—before last night, the Pens’ shooting percentage had been twice that of the Caps, a massive disparity that can’t be entirely explained by shot quality or by goaltending or by anything but plain chance.
I can’t make this any plainer: The Capitals have been the better team throughout this series. Even when I wrote them off for dead.
Andre Burakovsky is a good illustration of how things have changed, and how you’ve got your choice of reasons why. The 22-year-old left winger had been everywhere through the first four games of the series, and had led the Capitals in corsi, but he didn’t have even a single point to show for it. In the last two games, he’s got three goals and an assist. Is it because he was moved up to the first line in place of Alex Ovechkin and benefited from being alongside Backstrom and T.J. Oshie? Or was it because, as a sample size grows, if you keep dominating possession you’re eventually going to start scoring? I’d wager it’s both.
The shot disparity was overwhelming last night. The Penguins had eight shots on goal after two periods, and just three in the first—one of which was a clearance. The Pens did not record a shot on goal from the Capitals’ half of the ice until 17:27 had elapsed.
“There was a little bit of frustration,” Mike Sullivan said. “But I thought we talked about making sure that we grab ahold of ourselves, and stay focused and just try to play the game the right way. We just, to a man, we weren’t good enough tonight.”
So what’s wrong with the Penguins? An awful lot. Sidney Crosby hasn’t looked like himself since returning from a concussion that he probably shouldn’t have returned from. (To say nothing of this.) The reunion of the vaunted HBK line was a bust. Fleury’s getting beaten on shots he shouldn’t be, and if Matt Murray were healthy, he’d be in net right now. And more than anything else, the Penguins are desperately missing Kris Letang. Their defense has been bad, blocked shots not withstanding, and more than that, no one else back there has Letang’s ability to create rushes the other way. All these flaws can be ignored while winning, but few of them can be fixed when the losing starts.
So, Game 7 on Wednesday, which will be one year to the day of the Penguins eliminating the Caps on Nick Bonino’s OT winner. Somebody’s going to go home severely disappointed. Momentum and quality of play favor Washington. But just about anything can happen in one game, no matter which is the better team. This series’s longevity has demonstrated that already.
“They think they won an easy game tonight,” Evgeni Malkin said. “They think they can win Game 7. I say, ‘No.’”