The Pittsburgh Penguins have squandered a pair of games in their Round 2 series against the Washington Capitals. History and belief say it’s the Penguins who are to steal moments from the Capitals, but thus far history and belief have been wrong.
It’s the Capitals which have taken big moments from the Penguins. As a result, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins now face elimination.
The Penguins could have and perhaps should have won Game 3. They certainly should have won Game 5. They did neither. Soft goals and defensive gaffes are now as commonplace as great plays.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said the Penguins “played their best game of the series.”
Mistakes. And more mistakes in Game 5. They were momentary lapses which negated the Penguins’ superior play. If the Penguins do not survive to see the Eastern Conference final, it will be self-inflicted. Specifically, Kris Letang turned in a couple of whoppers which led to the Capitals game-tying and game-winning goals.
Tactically, the Penguins used the low-high pass efficiently. Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak blasted a point shot past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. The Brassard-Sheary duo was especially active low in the zone and set up the Oleksiak goal. The Sheary-Brassard-Kuhnhackl line was the Penguins’ best, but they didn’t convert beyond the first goal.
The Capitals were opportunistic. In an odd twist, the Capitals used the speed and rush game against the Penguins effectively. The clearest microcosm of Game 5 was the Capitals game-winning goal. Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin sensed an opportunity and pinched low. Dumoulin had a Grade A chance but didn’t finish.
The Capitals transitioned and forced the Penguins into a mistake. Riley Sheahan got back on defense, but Alex Ovechkin bull rushed him to the outside. Letang did not take his man, Jakub Vrana, or put himself between the puck and Vrana. Penguins goalie Matt Murray also overcommitted to Ovechkin on the outside.
The Penguins now must beat the Capitals in Game 6 to avoid elimination then go back to Washington for Game 7. Oh by the way, Tom Wilson will return for Game 7, which should give the Capitals a huge boost.
The Report Card
Penguins Power Play: A
Two power-play goals in the second period set the Penguins up for a win. The Penguins’ power plays were simple: quick puck movement, shots on goal, they won battles, and most importantly they lit the lamp twice.
Sidney Crosby: C+
Crosby has been dominant in the series, and he did not play poorly in Game 5. Nor did Crosby make any mistakes, but the Penguins top line yielded far more chances than they created. Crosby had a team worst 25 percent Corsi.
Crosby had a few good chances at five-on-five, but the Capitals did a good job of neutralizing the Penguins’ top line with matchups, namely Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.
Phil Kessel: C-
This is the tough one. Grading Kessel on the curve would yield a higher grade. He’s gutting out an injury but has been a liability in this series due to that injury. He was better in Game 5, but he yielded numerous turnovers.
He was only credited with one giveaway, but that was generous scorekeeping. On the power play and T.J. Oshie’s game-clinching empty netter, Kessel coughed up the puck, and needlessly so.
His wall work was softer than usual, which led to the Brett Connolly scoring chance which became the Connolly goal when the puck skipped through Murray’s five-hole
The coaches tried to protect Kessel. He had the fewest five-on-five minutes on the team until the Penguins trailed and shortened the bench. The blunt assessment is that Kessel’s bright spots in Game 5 made his play better than Games 1-4, but it still wasn’t above water.
Barry Trotz: A
The Capitals were ready to fold. Without Tom Wilson, and facing decades of history, the Capitals were facing the possibility of an elimination game in Pittsburgh. The Penguins even scored the first goal and controlled the play.
The Capitals didn’t fold. In fact, Trotz juggled his lineup. Vrana, who has had a great series, was elevated to the Capitals top six. Devante Smith-Pelly, who took Wilson’s place beside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, was dropped back to his natural third-line spot. The move made a huge difference for the Capitals.
Smith-Pelly was a liability. Vrana was an asset. Trotz was religious with matchups, too. Credit where it’s due. The Capitals stared down the barrel of the Penguins ‘guns and didn’t flinch.
Kris Letang: D
Not only did he lose his place, twice, he argued with Dumoulin on the bench about it. Perhaps Letang had a point on the Kuznetsov breakaway goal. However, Letang had plenty of time to read the situation. Even if he was momentarily fooled by Dumoulin, he had time to recover.
If he wanted to switch, he has to call it. Dumoulin had no chance to get over to cover Kuznetsov if the switch was called.
It was an ominous omen when Letang-Dumoulin failed to cover Ovechkin in front of the net on the first shift. Murray saved the duo’s bacon a couple of times before the third period.
Letang continued his rollercoaster season. Six Flags should be as lucky to have a coaster with as many ups and downs.
The Penguins coaches continue to feed Letang the most minutes. That is a mistake given the potential of the Schultz-Oleksiak pairing.
Jakub Vrana-Braden Holtby-Dmitri Orlov-Matt Niskanen: A
Vrana added a jolt to the Capitals lineup with more ice time. Holtby made big saves. Orlov and Niskanen had tough assignments and were a combined plus-5.
Derick Brassard-Conor Sheary-Schultz-Oleksiak: A
Brassard and Sheary turned the tables on the Capitals bottom forwards and created scoring chances. Schultz and Oleksiak were the Penguins best pairing.