It had to happen eventually. In a year where most pundits including myself wrote them off even after they won the Metro Division, the Capitals finally proved they were better than the Penguins. Indeed, the Ovechkin Caps are moving on to their first Conference Final in 20 years after getting the better of the Crosby Pens.
They earned it the hard way by going to overtime before Alexander Ovechkin sprung series hero Evgeny Kuznetsov for a breakaway goal to defeat the Pens 2-1 in Game 6 at Pittsburgh. It ended a great run by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Pens, who were seeking to become the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders dynasty. They won back-to-back Stanley Cups and nine consecutive series. Similar to the Red Wings in ’99 and Lemieux/Jagr Pens in ’93, they lost in the second round.
Another similarity to that great Pens team is they fell in sudden death on home ice to get dethroned. The only difference is the ’93 team lost to the Islanders in seven with David Volek winning it. That was a bigger upset.
This was two evenly matched teams in a rivalry that had been one sided. In the first three meetings all in Round Two, the Pens advanced and went on to become champs. All-time, the Caps had only beaten the Pens once in 10 previous meetings, doing so in ’94. From a historical standpoint, this was arguably the most important win in franchise history.
Given who it involved, they needed this emotional victory. Maybe it was destined to go to overtime for Ovechkin to exorcise all the demons. His team had never been past this point. When it wasn’t the Pens breaking Caps hearts, it was the Rangers driving a stake through their heart in a memorable 2015 Conference Semifinal.
In the series, Ovechkin finished with three goals and four assists totaling seven points. It was his passing that made the biggest difference. In the 6-3 comeback win in Game 5, Ovechkin made a perfect pass to set up rookie Jakub Vrana’s game-winner late in regulation. A unselfish play by the greatest goalscorer of our generation.
In a tightly contested Game 6 with no room, Ovechkin came back hard on the back check to steal the puck following a Crosby turnover in the Caps zone. He then made a nice pass to a streaking Kuznetsov in the neutral zone that allowed the speedy younger Russian to break away. Once he was in on Matt Murray, he faked a backhand deke and tucked a forehand between Murray’s pads for the emotional series clincher at 5:27 of OT. Kuznetsov did his odd bird dance in celebration as Ovechkin and excited teammates mobbed him.
How much did it mean to Ovechkin? In a postgame interview, he had a classic reaction to Pierre McGuire’s question on Kuznetsov’s breakaway.
Well said. This meant everything to the Great Eight. He now gets to play in his first Eastern Conference Final. For the Caps, it won’t get any easier. They’ll face the number one seeded Lightning for a chance at a trip to a Stanley Cup. It was exactly 20 years ago that they made it before getting swept by the powerful Red Wings.
They’re here because they outplayed and outworked the Pens in the two biggest games of the second round. They turned around Game 5 with a unreal third period outscoring the Pens 4-0. Kuznetsov was again involved beating Murray on a breakaway 52 second into the third to tie the score. He was huge.
In Game 6 last night, the Pens didn’t get the strong start they needed in front of the home crowd at PPG Paints Arena. Instead, they were stuck in mud against a defensive minded Caps, who limited them to six shots in a nerve racking first. Neither team did much. But it was a perfect road period for Washington.
When they needed a big save, series MVP Braden Holtby gave it to them. Ever since he returned to the net, he’s been sensational. He turned the first round around against Columbus by winning four consecutive starts. He was the better goalie in the Metro Division Final outperforming Murray, who was still superb in Monday’s elimination game. Even after giving up the short side to Alex Chiasson to fall behind, Murray made some unreal stops to give his team a chance. He was busier making 28 saves. Holtby finished with 21.
The Pens had trouble getting inside on the Caps defense. In particular, big scorer Jake Guentzel, who was blanketed the last two games. He had no shots last night and was surrounded. Ditto for clutch Pen Bryan Rust, who wasn’t able to get off his big shot whenever he had a rush. Crosby was also quiet with only one shot. It was that kind of game.
Pens coach Mike Sullivan adjusted his lines to create a spark. It still took a bounce for his team to tie the score. Off a Crosby faceoff win back to Brian Dumoulin, he passed across for a Kris Letang one-timer that changed direction going off a Cap and by Holtby. He was expecting a different shot and was in position for the save until the odd deflection which tied the score.
Holtby was at his best following the Letang goal. He had to be because suddenly the resurgent Pens tilted the ice turning the Caps into a full fledged panic attack. They survived the onslaught thanks to Holtby and hung on to escape the second still tied.
They regrouped in the third to outshoot the Pens 9-5 in a tentative period where both teams were afraid to make a mistake. The Caps were better nearly untying it late when Vrana got free in the waning seconds. If he could’ve backhanded a loose puck off a rebound, there wouldn’t have been any OT.
As fate would have it, the Caps had to do it the hard way in enemy territory. Barry Trotz’ club did it without Nicklas Backstrom, whose availability for the next round is unknown. I’m sure he’ll be back. Without Backstrom, Lars Eller stepped up. He was one of their best players. So was Jay Beagle, who in limited duty was effective along with Chiasson creating chances. T.J. Oshie was a beast all series.
Trotz deserves full credit for his strategy without one of his best players. He also was without suspended forward Tom Wilson, who served the final game of a three-game ban for his cheap shot that broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw and concussed him. They managed just fine going 2-1 in the three games.
It wasn’t surprising that the overtime didn’t last long. The Caps looked confident and wanted to end it and not take their chances in a home Game 7. Can you blame them after last year?
The Pens had only two shots compared to the Caps six. But they did get a great chance. On a good forecheck by Carl Hagelin, he found Tom Kuhnackl open in the circle. He fired a seeing eye shot between Brooks Orpik’s legs right off the far goalpost. That close to Game 7.
It wasn’t long after that Dmitry Orlov forced a on rushing Crosby into a turnover, sending the puck the other way. The Caps transition was one of the biggest factors in the series victory. It was there in Game 5 when Holtby made the big save to deny Dumoulin and send Ovechkin off to the races where he passed for Vrana who scored the winner.
It was there again as Ovechkin retrieved the loose puck and backhanded a pass up the middle to Kuznetsov, who got behind the defense. He did the rest to finally give the Caps the win they’ve been looking for in this round over their kryptonite.
Now, they have more work to do. It won’t be easy against a very deep Lightning team who is loaded both up front and on D. The Caps will again be the underdog. A role they don’t mind. They’ve been counted out all season. This is just another quality opponent standing in the way.
Most observers including yours truly think the Lightning will prevail. The Caps will have to prove us wrong. At this point, I don’t think Ovechkin and his teammates care. They’re finally here. Now we find out if they have what it takes against the East’s best team.