PITTSBURGH — The dream of a three-peat is dead.
Evgeny Kuznestov buried a breakaway goal at 5:27 of overtime, giving the Capitals a 2-1 win in overtime Monday night in Game 6 of a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins lost the series four games to two, marking just the second time in 11 all-time postseason meetings that Washington has beaten Pittsburgh.
“It sucks, that’s for sure,” said Bryan Rust, who was one of many Penguins who couldn’t muster much on a tight night Uptown. “We didn’t have enough.”
Both teams had chances to end the game just prior to Kuznetsov’s winning forehand, which beat Matt Murray through the legs. Tom Kühnhackl hit the left post with 3 1/2 minutes gone in sudden death, followed by John Carlson getting stopped by Murray on a partial breakaway.
“Playoffs, it’s a game of inches,” Kühnhackl said, shaking his head. “Every game could’ve went different. We could’ve won, we could’ve lost. It’s hard to find the words. … It could have gone to seven games, easy.”
But Sidney Crosby‘s turnover at the offensive blue line proved deadly, with Alex Ovechkin shuffling the puck ahead for the clean opportunity. Kuznetsov used a similar move that beat Murray for the tying goal in Game 5.
“I got a piece of (Kris Letang‘s pass),” Crosby explained. “I tried to get it again and couldn’t do it. They were pretty quick in transition. Obviously I would’ve liked to handle that cleanly.”
While the Penguins should be sour about going 2-4 at home in the playoffs, for the Capitals, this breakthrough has to be beyond sweet.
They finally slay the Penguins, in sudden death on Pittsburgh ice, no less. Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal-scorers in hockey history, will get a chance to play for the Eastern Conference title for the first time in his 13th NHL season. The Capitals will face the Lightning in the third round, with Tampa Bay holding home-ice advantage.
As for Mike Sullivan and the Penguins, it was the first elimination experience since he took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015.
“I think sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes,” Sullivan said. “I think this group knows how hard it is to win in the playoffs. And there’s a fine line between winning and losing. We haven’t tasted that in a long time, and that’s a credit to those players in that dressing room.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them as a coach, but obviously we’re all disappointed. We have to digest it and get better for next season.”
Washington was forced to play with one hand tied behind its back, since top-line center Nicklas Bäckström sat out with an upper-body injury suffered early in Game 5.
All things considered, with the memories of the past two playoff defeats to the Penguins still fresh in many Capitals’ minds, Monday night was a hell of an effort, from an excellent Braden Holtby on out. After a close-cropped first 58 minutes, Washington generated 15 of the final 20 shot attempts, culminating in Kuznestov’s seventh of the playoffs.
“We had to play really systematically,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “We didn’t get a lot, but obviously we were patient. … We knew we were missing some people and we had some matchups that weren’t favorable. The guys believed in the game plan and stuck with it. I thought we were checking really well.”
Let’s not forget Trotz himself, who has carried a similar playoff yoke in his long NHL coaching career, both with Nashville and now the Capitals over the past four seasons. He will coach his first conference final game later this week.
“They probably needed to go through some of this,” Trotz said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth from this veteran group. You saw young guys growing in the last two series. We’ve had some bad (losses), some painful losses. And it made us stronger. … We’re only halfway. There’s a lot of skeletons in the closet, but it’s a start.”
The Capitals’ fourth line, of all things, broke the ice with 2:13 gone in the second. Australian winger Nathan Walker, making his NHL playoff debut, circled the Penguins net and centered for Alex Chiasson to power between Murray and the right post.
“A lot of times in the playoffs, the great players cancel each other out,” Trotz said. “Then it’s the next guy up. That’s what you need in the playoffs. Hockey is the ultimate team sport.”
Murray redeemed himself shortly thereafter, as Washington seemed enlivened by getting the first goal. Game 5 hero Jakub Vrana had the best opportunity of the bunch, breaking in for a wide-open chance that Murray denied with the blocker hand.
The Capitals’ inability to grow the lead truly stung at 11:52 of the second, when Letang popped a one-timer following a Crosby faceoff win and got a friendly bounce off Washington winger Chandler Stephenson. Holtby had little time to adjust, so Letang picked up his second goal of the playoffs.
“It’s always close,” Kühnhackl said of the game, and the series in general. “There are highs and lows in each game. They’re going to push. We’re going to push. I think both teams played pretty hard over the course of the series.”
After Letang’s goal, both teams aired it out for several minutes. The Penguins had the slight edge in play over the final eight minutes before the intermission, although Kuznetsov might’ve had the cleanest look of everybody with about two minutes remaining in the period. Kuznetsov had half a day to pull the trigger from the side of the net with Murray scrambling, but he hesitated and then simply stuffed the puck into Murray.
Holtby matched that save with about 15 seconds to go in the second. Malkin snatched the puck in the left corner and fed a backhand pass to Justin Schultz, whose 15-foot wrist shot banged off Holtby’s left arm and wide.
“I thought both goalies were pretty good,” Crosby said. “Most of these games, it’s a one-shot difference. You need to get those big plays and unfortunately we couldn’t do it.”
The Penguins looked the tighter team to start the third, unable to connect on most of their attempted passes up ice for the first five minutes or so. Phil Kessel’s giveaway into Evgeni Malkin‘s skates yielded a slot chance for T.J. Oshie, but he missed over the crossbar.
In fact, Pittsburgh didn’t register a shot on goal for the first eight-plus minutes of the third before Schultz filtered one through from the point. Soon after that, Murray denied Jay Beagle on a bang-bang chance from the left circle.
Then, it was Crosby’s turn for his first shot of the game, a glorious redirect chance right in front with 2:40 to go. Holtby was equal to that task, but Hörnqvist fanned on the rebound that sprung off the goalie’s right leg. We played on, approaching overtime.
“They had good gaps,” said Crosby of the Capitals’ defense. “When we did get in there, there were a few shifts where we were able to shift momentum. Probably not as consistently as we would’ve liked, getting control and keeping them down there.”
Olli Määttä came up with the clutch defensive play of the night with mere seconds remaining in regulation. Vrana popped loose in front of the net, puck on his stick, but Määttä lifted his stick from behind to preserve the tie and send the Penguins to their first overtime game of this year’s playoff run.
The first period had the look of a game with a lot at stake, as the Penguins and Capitals had a difficult time getting into the slot and around the net for much of the opening 20 minutes.
Washington’s finest early chance came courtesy of their lone power play of the first, when Oshie clanged a wrister off the right post from between the circles. The Penguins appeared to gain confidence as the period went along, getting close-in tries from Patric Hörnqvist and Malkin during an extended shift in the offensive zone.
Kessel continued to struggle, though. The ailing winger did manage a shot on net during Pittsburgh’s first power play, but later handed the puck away near the blue line after a slow deke attempt. Kessel played the second-least even-strength time in the game, ahead of only Riley Sheahan.
For many in that Penguins dressing room, this was a brand-new experience at this level. Seven players had never lost a Stanley Cup playoff series.
“We may not have had our best game,” Rust said. “But I think we were working hard. We were wanting to do the right things. I think everyone in here cared enough. They happened to score one more than us.”
Instead of preparing for a Game 7 on Wednesday night in Washington, the Penguins will watch the conclusion of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in three years.
“Everybody did what they could,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t get it done.”
Keep it here on Pittsburgh Hockey Now for all the postgame reaction and analysis you can handle, including Dan Kingerski’s Report Card and our Penguins Locker Room feature.