Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang picked the worst moments to lose his responsibilities. The Washington Capitals scored four third-period goals, including two empty-net goals, to beat the Penguins 6-3 on Saturday night in Washington.
The Capitals lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2 and the Penguins will face elimination on home ice in Game 6 in Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Moments into the third period, Letang drifted behind defensive partner Brian Dumoulin which vacated the right side of the ice. The Capitals sprung Evgeny Kuznetsov (6) for a breakaway goal, which tied the game 3-3.
“We were both in-between,” Dumoulin explained, referring to himself and Letang. “That’s something we have to sort out. A lot of it was just being in-between. That’s when you get caught.”
Letang added that he thought Alex Ovechkin was stretching the ice behind him, so he covered Ovechkin instead of noticing Kuznetsov drift open to take Jakub Vrana‘s lead pass.
Late in the third period, Dumoulin nearly put the Penguins ahead with a well-timed pinch. Dumoulin had a Grade-A chance in front, but couldn’t finish. The Capitals did finish on the resulting transition rush. Letang lost coverage of Vrana in front of the net. Vrana didn’t miss what became the game-winning goal, tucking it behind an overcommitted Matt Murray.
“That’s a tough play,” Murray told reporters. “Ovechkin’s coming full speed on his forehand, but I’ve gotta make a better read on that. He makes a nice play and they get a bounce or two.”
Statistically, the Penguins dominated most of the game but the Capitals will have chance to eliminate the Penguins on Monday.
“It’s tough,” said Sidney Crosby, who scored his ninth goal of the playoffs in the first period. “We did a lot of good things, but that’s playoff hockey. You see there with the winning goal. We had a great chance. That’s how close it is.”
Late in the first period, The Capitals scored a pair of goals just 33 seconds apart and neither were highlights for Penguins goaltender Matt Murray.
Dominik Simon jeopardized the Penguins’ early advantage. Simon took an offensive-zone penalty in the final two minutes of the first period, and the Capitals converted the power play. Capitals defenseman John Carlson took advantage of a Capitals power play. Carlson (3) found space at the top of the zone and stepped into a slap shot from 40 feet away which whistled over Murray’s glove.
“You don’t like to take penalties in the offensive zone,” Sullivan said of Simon’s penalty. “That was just a hockey play, though, with two guys fighting for position. They score on it, but there’s a lot of hockey left.”
The Capitals grinders struck immediately afterward, too. Lars Eller quickly beat Phil Kessel on the midwall and worked towards the slot. Brett Connolly’s shot deflected off Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist and bounced through Murray’s five-hole.
The Penguins superior work began to wear on the Capitals who took for straight penalties between the final seconds of the first period and late in the second period. In turn, the Penguins popped a pair of power-play goals in the second period.
Crosby started the Penguins’ march. Five minutes into the second, Crosby tied the game when he deflected Kessel’s wide shot behind Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who made 36 saves on the night but didn’t have a shot on Crosby’s ninth goal of the playoffs.
Three minutes later, the Penguins power play gave the Penguins the lead. Evgeni Malkin and Hornqvist gained position on the Capitals defenders and each got pokes at Hornqvist’s rebound. Hornqvist (5) was the whack-a-mole winner.
“The second period might’ve been the best period we’ve played in a long time,” Mike Sullivan told reporters at Capital One Arena. “A lot of the game, we really liked. Momentum can be a funny thing. They get an early goal in the third period on a breakdown on our part, and they get some life.”
Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak scored the first goal of the game with a point blast two minutes into the game.
The Penguins fired 39 shots on goal. The Capitals only 32, but Holtby outplayed Murray. The Penguins did block 17 shots. The Capitals blocked 12, helping them survive some stretches when they were pinned in their zone.
“This was one of the first game we’ve been able to roll all four lines and create chances off of all four lines,” said Conor Sheary, who again played well with Derrick Brassard but didn’t generate a goal. “It was good to see. We gave a couple free ones to them in the end which is unfortunate. We thought we played a pretty good game.”
The biggest head-scratching number of the night for the Penguins was this, though: They created 14 high-danger scoring chances at even strength to just six for the Capitals. The number was 24-7 overall, so Holtby certainly did his job, in addition getting some luck, like when Olli Maatta missed an open net in the final minutes.
“He was good,” Crosby said of Holtby. “We generated some good ones. He made some saves. We couldn’t get our stick on a few. We had him beat on a couple and they didn’t go in. We keep getting those, they’ll go in.”
Penguins forward Phil Kessel, who Pittsburgh Hockey Now confirmed is battling injury had the least five-on-five ice time until the final minutes of the third period as the Penguins tried to mount a comeback.
Kessel lost the puck to T.J. Oshie in the final minute, as he tried to drag the puck to his forehand near the point. Oshie stole and fired into the empty net to seal the deal and set up an elimination game Monday night for the Penguins. They haven’t trailed 3-2 in a series since the 2016 Eastern Conference final, in which they won the last two games against the Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We just play,” Murray said. “We let our play speak for itself. We don’t worry about things we can’t control. We just play and have fun in these situations.”