The Pittsburgh Penguins may have wasted their best chance to vanquish the best team in the NHL. The Penguins followed their 2017 playoff formula in Game 5, for two periods: Be dramatically out-shot, rely on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and inexplicably lead on the scoreboard. For two periods, the Penguins quieted the boisterous Verizon Center crowd, and led 2-1. For two periods, anyway.
The Capitals roared back for a 4-2 win, and cut the Penguins series lead to 3-2.
Marc-Andre Fleury (incorrectly) called the game his worst of the playoffs.
Penguins winger Phil Kessel scored a beautiful powerplay goal early in the second period. It was one of three Penguins shots in the second period. Just one of those shots was at even strength. One shot. Really.
The Penguins decided to drive a stake through the Capitals heart at the beginning of the third period. Rather than lock down their end zone as they did in Game 4, the Penguins pushed hard for their third goal. In the process, the Penguins abandoned their own zone. Especially the Malkin line, Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel.
To spare that line criticism would be to sugarcoat the Penguins missed opportunity.
The Capitals tied the game just a few minutes into the third period. The Penguins had the Capitals rush covered. For a moment. See here–it was three Capitals against five Penguins
Then the breakdowns began. Justin Schultz did not put himself between the puck carrier (Andre Burakovsky) and the net which created a forward passing lane. Carl Hagelin was outskated while Evgeni Malkin coasted into the zone. Three-on-five, became a two-on-one. Seen here:
Fleury wanted this goal back. That seems generous to his teammates who left their responsibility in the neutral zone.
Seven minutes into the final period, the Capitals finally cracked the dam. Two turnovers at their own blue line, missed coverage, and otherwise chaos in the Penguins zone. First, watch Kessel miss Malkin on the exit pass, then Hagelin turned it over on the opposite side, while Shultz again failed to put himself between the puck and the net.
Just 27 seconds later, Alex Ovechkin beat most Penguins to their zone. Ron Hainsey blocked Ovechkin’s first shot, but the ricochet bounced back to Ovechkin. With Hainey down from the first block, Ovechkin has Fleury at his mercy.
At that point, Ovechkin found his game. Holtby found his Vezina Trophy game. The crowd hit 117 decibels. And the Capitals have life, momentum and perhaps worst of all, real confidence.
We have to defend better
The truth no one wants to admit, least of all the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals are the better team. The Penguins intangibles have helped them survive being outplayed in four of five games. Fleury has stolen a couple games.
While Fleury was critical of his performance, it is hard to fault a goaltender when great players get open shots within 20 feet.
Mike Sullivan, rightly, disagreed with Fleury’s dark assessment, “He was solid,” said Sullivan. “We have to defend better.”
Olli Maatta was largely very good. Maatta jumped into the rush a few times, and had one very high quality chance. Maatta forced Holtby to make a strong save in the first period.
Capitals Line Matches Worked
The Penguins fourth line with Tom Kunhackl, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz had a rough night against the Capitals second line, centered by Evgeni Kuznetsov. In simple Corsi numbers, the Penguins fourth line was outchanced 2 to 1. Nick Bonino‘s line wasn’t much better.
The Penguins broke up Kessel and Malkin, putting Sheary and Rust beside Malkin. Kessel will need to be better. Much, much better. The American sniper avoided too many puck battles and was disinterested in his own zone, even before trailing by two.
The Penguins can afford Phil Kessel to have bad games. However, they cannot pair Kessel and Malkin when both are singularly focused on half the ice, as that leaves a defensive crater in the lineup.
For the first time this playoff season, it is the Penguins who will need to adjust. Sullivan likes to forgive players who make mistakes while playing hard. That wasn’t the case with Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel. It will be curious to see if any start receiving mail in the coach’s doghouse.
The Penguins mistakes on defense are correctable. Hainsey and Dumoulin are talented enough to fix their gap issues. They gave too much space to Capitals forwards, which allowed the Capitals rush to get deeper into the zone.
Justin Schultz regression continued, Saturday. Schultz is not giving his partner, Ian Cole, enough proper support and he is not defending the Capitals attack well. He looks overwhelmed. It will be hard to get Schultz more offensive zone starts if the Penguins are not in the offensive zone, more often.
The Penguins say they have not yet played their best game. 10 games into the playoff calendar. If that is true… Monday seems the right time to bring their best. Malkin-Kessel, whether they skate together or on separate lines, are vital. The Penguins cannot beat the Capitals with luck.
The Capitals goals were avoidable with better defensive play. The monumental achievement remains possible, if not probable, even if the Penguins just gave away their margin of error.