May 7 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and 99.1 FM
Game 6, Eastern Conference semifinal series. Caps lead, 3-2.
By virtue of its 6-3 win over the Penguins in Saturday's Game 5 of the second-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the two rivals, Washington has a chance to put a coda on the series when it returns to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Monday night.
Video: #ALLCAPS All-Access | Just Keep Believing
Vying for a 10thstraight best-of-seven playoff series win, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins find themselves facing elimination for just the fourth time in those 10 series. The Pens needed overtime of Game 7 to get past the Ottawa Senators in the 2017 Eastern Conference final series, they defeated the Caps in Game 7 of their second-round series in 2017 and they were down 3-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning before rebounding to win the 2016 ECF series.
"I think it comes down to character and the people that we have in our dressing room," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. "These guys are competitive guys, they know what it takes to win, they're not afraid of challenges, and they embrace these types of situations. So we have the utmost confidence in the group that we have. They're a battled-tested group, and I know our guys are looking forward to the opportunity to play [Monday] night."
Pittsburgh scored three goals in the third period of Game 1 of the current series to erase a 2-0 Washington advantage, stunning the Capitals by scoring those three goals in less than five minutes, and netting all three of them at five-on-five.
Video: Barry Trotz | May 6
The Pens were a five-on-five juggernaut in the first round, scoring 24 goals in six games at five-on-five against a trio of beleaguered Philadelphia netminders. The Pens have been dangerous offensively throughout this second-round set with Washington, but the Caps have defended well in their end of the ice, and goaltender Braden Holtby has been excellent throughout the 2018 playoffs. As a result, the Pens have been held to just six five-on-five goals in the series, and just three of those have been scored in the last four games.
Limiting Pittsburgh's rush chances has helped the Caps to neutralize the Pens' potent attack, and Washington must remain diligent in that regard on Monday.
"We've been working at it this year," says Holtby. "I think the way the NHL is now, it's opening up more odd-man rushes based on some of the rule changes and just based on how the teams are set up roster-wise and how the game is trending. But to be honest, this series against Pitt we've done a better job than in the past at limiting those, and I think that's' a big reason why we've had more success defensively in games. And we know as well as anyone - we've played them a lot - that the best way to beat them is limiting odd-man stuff because if you do that, you have a really good chance of winning."
Even in losing Game 5, Pittsburgh may have played its best game of the series to date. The Pens poured 39 shots on Holtby in Saturday's game, the most they've mustered in the five games in his series. Pittsburgh is finding hope and confidence in that overall performance; they had all four lines rolling nicely and playing well, and previously quiet veterans Derrick Brassard and Phil Kessel turned in arguably their best performances of the postseason in Game 5.
Video: Caps' four-goal 3rd period leads them to Game 5 win
"I thought that was Brass' best game, and I thought Phil played well tonight," said Pens coach Mike Sullivan after Game 5. "I thought we had a lot of guys playing well. I thought Brass' line was really good all night long; they had a lot of chances. The second period might be the best period we've played in a long time."
Four consecutive Pittsburgh power plays helped the Pens take control of the game in the middle period, but Holtby's heroics kept Pittsburgh from running away and gave the Caps a chance at a late comeback. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Pens owned a 20-4 lead in high-danger scoring chances in all situations after 40 minutes in Saturday's game, and that advantage was still heavily skewed at 24-7 by night's end.
Clearly, Holtby had a heck of a lot to do with Washington's win on Saturday, and the Caps know they'll have to be much better, because Pittsburgh will be much more desperate.
"We're going to have to play much better," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Anybody who gets their backs against the wall, you get their best game, and we're going to need our best game. We need to be better.
"I think we were fortunate that our goaltender was really good, and [the Pens] didn't convert on a couple of their chances. We did. And at the end of the day, we found a way to win, and that's playoff hockey. Sometimes in the past I've been on the other side where we go, 'It felt like we played really good and didn't get the result.'"
Washington played the last 12 or 13 minutes of Saturday's Game 5 without the services of star center Nicklas Backstrom. After the game, Trotz said Backstrom was day-to-day with an upper body injury. Before the Caps left for Pittsburgh on Sunday, Trotz discussed Backstrom's condition again.
"He got some maintenance today, and we'll see where he is [Monday]," says the Caps bench boss.
With 13 points (three goals, 10 assists), Backstrom is tied for second on the Caps in playoff scoring and he is tied for eighth in the league in that department. He has helped the Caps limit the amount of damage inflicted by Pens center Sidney Crosby, who still has three goals and seven points in the five games in this series. Backstrom is critical to Washington's success, and the Caps are already playing without two forwards who opened the playoffs in the team's top six, Andre Burakovsky (upper body injury) and Tom Wilson (suspension).
While Pittsburgh finds itself in fairly unfamiliar territory here, the Caps will be looking to close out the Pens on the road in Game 6, a feat they've accomplished in each of their last two playoff series wins, against Columbus this spring and against Toronto last year.
The two-time defending champs will be a hard out, for sure.
"I think it's all about an attitude going in, and I believe our guys have the right attitude," says Sullivan. "I think they believe in themselves, they know that they're capable, and really what we're looking at is going out and winning one hockey game. And that's all we need to do, and I know we're very capable of that. We're not looking beyond it, and we're not looking behind it.
"We're trying to learn from each experience, we're trying to focus on the task right in front of us and stay in the moment. I think that's an important part of playing at this time of the year in the playoffs, and being able to deal with some of the adversities that are associated with the playoffs. And the reality is every team that is left is a really good team, and there are going to be emotional ups and downs.
"Although we were disappointed in the result [Saturday] night, there was a lot of what we liked and I think that's what we have to take away from it. I know our guys felt good about their respective games [Saturday] night and we've got to learn from some of the mistakes that we made and be ready to move by it and be prepared for that challenge right in front of us. But I know our guys are excited about the opportunity."
There's that word gain, "opportunity." It's there for both sides, and it remains to be seen which team will grab it in what has been a tremendously compelling and entertaining series.
"There is an opportunity," says Trotz. "We have a little more wiggle room than them. We've got to bring our best game, and we've got to push our game to the next level - there is no ifs, ands or buts. We need to do that. This is a very good opponent, and we're going to have to be really, really good. We have a lot of guys that I know have to be better, have to be way better in a lot of areas."