The Pittsburgh Penguins are beaten and battered. With Trevor Daley‘s injury in Game 5, the Penguins are missing their top two right-defensemen. As Daley limped out of the arena, Monday, so too did the Penguins figuratively limp out of Game 6.
This is one of those difficult columns to write. The series is not over. Anything can happen in Game 7. But as I wrote Sunday, the Capitals finally broke the dam in the third period, Game 5. The Penguins were 15 minutes away from punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference Final against an inferior team. But lackadaisical play from the Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel line in Game 5 spotted the Capitals a pair of much needed goals, momentum, and confidence.
Series can turn on singular moments. And this series turned on a single play–a three on five which became a two on one, and the Capitals game tying goal.
The Penguins had two chances to finish the Capitals. Instead, it may be the Capitals who have battered the Penguins into submission. The Capitals dominated the Penguins physically and in every other aspect in the Game 6, 5-2 win.
The Capitals have now won 3 of 4. They have outshot the Penguins in all six games and outplayed them in at least five, if not six games. The Penguins mustered only 18 shots in Game 6.
Worse for the Penguins has been the declining play since Game 3. The Penguins didn’t just lose puck battles in Game 6, some of their best players turned away from them. The Capitals physically suppressed the Penguins’ defensemen.
In fact, it was more than suppression. The Capitals physically intimidated the Penguins. Penguins forwards avoided contact at the expense of the puck. The defensemen misplayed pucks while under physical pressure. Ron Hainsey coughed up the puck to Andre Burakovsky deep in the Penguins zone which led the Capitals second goal.
That Hainsey was not credited with several turnovers is more a credit to hometown scoring than the game. Hainsey, however, was not alone. Even the usually simple game of Ian Cole crumbled. Cole was saddled with four giveaways and a -3.
What’s the difference between confidence and momentum? Not much, in a seven game series. Teams can gain or lose confidence which carries over from game to game. The Capitals were pressing. Defenseman John Carlson admitted the Capitals were gripping their sticks too tightly after losing Game 4 and trailing in Game 5.
The Capitals felt they were close. After Game 5, they could “feel” they had finally found it after Backstrom and Ovechkin ripped pucks past Marc-Andre Fleury. That confidence translated as momentum. After a few minutes in Game 6, the Capitals got to their game.
As much as I appreciate fans who choose to quote coaches–“momentum doesn’t carry over from game to game”–its only a matter of semantics. The Capitals are riding high. They are anxious for Game 7 because they feel like they have figured things out.
Braden Holtby told reporters they’ve learned (how to win). Do you want to argue that’s NOT momentum?
As we’ve written several times, the Capitals have taken away the walls. Their forecheck is often waiting, in position, for the Penguins right wing outs.
Tom Wilson, everyone’s least favorite rat, is also good at hockey. His speed and anticipation, combined with physical play, kept the puck in the Penguins zone as defenseman and forwards turn away from hits. The Penguins did not appear willing to pay the price to win the game.
Unlike Round 1, when the Penguins had an answer for the Blue Jackets jumping their breakouts, the Penguins haven’t found enough answers in Round 2. The uncertainty has lead to fumbling the puck, holding it tool long, and turnovers.
Malkin and HBK
While the Capitals have used Alex Ovechkin on the third line to create scoring matchups, the Penguins are searching for lines which aren’t trouble in their own zone. Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, who were each spectacular during the last pursuit of the Stanley Cup, have been liabilities in this series.
And that is being kind.
The Penguins appeared tired. The switch they were able to flip in the first four games, was stuck in the off position. The Capitals looked faster, more engaged, and hungry. The Penguins were never able to counterattack.
Instead, the Penguins… looked ready for two years of hockey to end. The Blue Jackets and the Capitals have pounded the smaller Penguins. Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary were each physically engaged in the first couple periods, but neither are built for that game.
Anything can happen. The Penguins don’t figure to go quietly, but they will have to hit the chalkboard for solutions. Currently, the Capitals have all of the answers.
We’ll dissect Game 7 more tomorrow. However a few things will be necessary: Malkin will need to play 200 feet for 60 minutes. He can’t keep trying to cheat for offense and turning the puck over. Phil Kessel must be emotionally engaged. A goal won’t be enough if he cedes the puck and does not compete for it and he coasts towards the defensive zone. Carl Hagelin has to be worth more than the 9 minutes of ice time he received in Game 6.
If Kessel did not attain cult hero status, last season, he would be the object of much criticism this season.
The Penguins have two days to get their house in order and present their best effort. The Capitals will not beat themselves or fold simply because they have in the past. The Penguins will need to win Game 7, not hope the Capitals lose.
Over the last four games, that has proved difficult. The Penguins get one more chance, Wednesday.
Media Credits: Capitals locker room quotes and context courtesy of the Washington Capitals PR.