Give Capitals’ head coach Barry Trotz a lot of credit for their Game 5 victory. It isn’t often a coach is willing to demote a star like Alexander Ovechkin, whether it greatly benefits the team or not. He did just that and Washington’s new look gave the Pittsburgh Penguins even more fits on the defensive side of the puck — something that was already a large issue in Games 1-4. If Pittsburgh doesn’t find an answer for Monday night when the two teams meet at PPG Paints Arena for Game 6, it could be a much earlier summer than most anticipated just three days ago.
When the Capitals took the ice for practice last Friday in preparation for Game 5, Ovechkin appeared wearing a white jersey — indicative of bottom-six duties — and skated on Washington’s third line. Combined with the fact they would once again deploy seven defensemen, it was seemingly a way to get Ovechkin more involved and provide means to double-shifting the elite scorer. That wasn’t the case, though.
Trotz and company took a page from the most important part of Pittsburgh’s book, the one published from April-June, 2016. A chapter that the original writer, head coach Mike Sullivan, is unable to reference due to player performances — some impacted by injury — not being up to snuff.
Spreading the Love, or… Offense
Evgeni Malkin returning from injury during last season’s playoff run sparked plenty of debate around how the lines would shake out. When he was injured by Columbus Blue Jackets’ defenseman Dalton Prout in early March and lost for the remainder of the regular season, it turned out to be the birth of Pittsburgh’s HBK line — consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel — and sparks immediately flew between the three of them. They were quite literally unstoppable and would prove to be a major catalyst in Pittsburgh’s late-season surge, as well as their Stanley Cup run.
Malkin was provided his own line and all of a sudden, the Penguins were a matchup nightmare. Sidney Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel were separated on three different lines. The Penguins took a top-nine approach, as opposed to viewing things through the usual top-six lens with two checking lines to occupy space. It worked.
And in Game 5, it worked for the Capitals, too.
Ovechkin played alongside Tom Wilson for 9-minutes and 40-seconds, according to NaturalStatTrick.Com. In that span, Washington accounted for over 70-percent of shot attempts, a great indication of territorial play and the fact that Pittsburgh was essentially trapped in their own end zone with no sign of escaping. The Capitals’ top two lines recognized similar success for most of the night and all of a sudden, we were watching the Penguins’ own gameplan directed at them and working perfectly.
The worst part, of course, is they didn’t have an answer for it. According to their lines at Monday’s morning skate, indications are that Pittsburgh will reunite their HBK line in hopes of sparking something, as well as provide Washington a taste of their own medicine.
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) May 8, 2017
Surviving the Capitals
Make no mistake. At this point, the Penguins are indeed trying to survive this series, as opposed to controlling it. They haven’t dictated play for more than a few minutes at a time throughout the first five games and that’s likely to continue.
Answers to Washington’s re-aligned forward group won’t be easy to find and honestly, the Penguins may not have them. At least, they don’t have them in terms of matchups or personnel changes unless Kris Letang miraculously returns and well, we know he isn’t. The Penguins will need to gut out one win over the next two games in gritty fashion. Under normal circumstances, controlled zone exits and entries are key but against this Capitals team, they have to be willing to chip the puck out of their own zone to relieve pressure and dump-and-chase on the offensive side of things.
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Oh, and they’ll need Marc-Andre Fleury to be brilliant yet again.
If they do survive, they’ll face a much lesser opponent in the Eastern Conference Final. That isn’t to say they’re guaranteed victory but it’s impossible to argue that eliminating the Capitals would mean removing their two biggest obstacles in rounds one and two, having already sent the Blue Jackets packing. They aren’t here by accident. The resilient Penguins who continue to defy logic and analytics are finding ways to win no matter the challenge. At this point, does anyone think they won’t do that just one more time this series?