On Saturday night in Washington, the Caps found that level and they leveled the Canes, 6-0. It was a dominant, full team effort, but the big boys did the heavy lifting, especially early. With the win, Washington takes a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven set. Game 6 is in Raleigh on Monday night.
Nicklas Backstrom scored the game's first goal for the third time in the series, all Washington wins. He scored the game's first two goals for the second time in the series and finished the night with four points.
Alex Ovechkin laid 11 hits, and he had a goal and two primary helpers. Braden Holtby stopped all 30 Carolina shots for his seventh career playoff shutout, a Caps franchise record. Tom Wilson had a goal and an assist to go along with six hits. John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov each chipped in with a pair of helpers.
"We weren't satisfied with the games in Carolina," says Backstrom. "Tonight, we played some Caps hockey. Everyone bought into everything, worked together, and it paid off."
Special teams were critical, and Washington won that battle decisively. The Caps went 3-for-4 on the power play and killed off all five Carolina power plays, including a string of three straight in the second period when Washington's lead was 1-0.
From the outset, the Caps were engaged and they set a strong physical tone early, delivering bodychecks and establishing a consistent and tenacious forecheck for the first time in the series. The Caps missed T.J. Oshie, but welcomed back Devante Smith-Pelly, who was effective in delivering five hits in just under 11 minutes of work.
"We've been disappointed with our lack of physical play, even when we had success here in Game 1 and 2," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We just felt that we really hadn't imposed our will and played the type of physical brand of hockey that we're capable of. We knew we had another level to get to.
"That was a real strong point, how we were able to respond in that aspect. I think it is something that makes our team special, the ability to be able to execute high-end skill play, but then still be able to really physically be abrasive on the forecheck and all over the ice and make it very difficult for the opposition."
"To a man," says Carolina center Jordan Staal, "I think everyone in our room needed a little more fight and just a little more edge to our game. We didn't have that tonight, and it showed."
The Capitals used a couple early power plays to good effect. Washington had good looks on its first extra-man opportunity, but it used its second chance - an abbreviated one coming out of a 4-on-4 sequence - to take a 1-0 lead.
With time winding down on Lucas Wallmark's hi-sticking sentence, the Caps turned it over in neutral ice, but Ovechkin broke up a Carolina play at the Washington line and started Wilson into Carolina ice with numbers. After gaining the zone on the left side, Wilson advanced it to John Carlson, who made a sublime pass to Backstrom, gliding down the right side. Canes goalie Petr Mrazek stopped the shot, but Backstrom tucked the rebound through the five-hole for a 1-0 Caps lead, nine seconds before Wallmark's scheduled exit.
The Caps' first period was arguably their best period of the series to date, but it was basically even at 5-on-5 in terms of scoring chances and possession. Instead, the Washington advantages were in hits, face-offs and special teams.
Carolina came back strong early in the second, putting some heat on the Caps, but Holtby and mates dealt with that issue - and a trio of Hurricanes power plays - in the middle period. The penalty killers were crucial on the first two kills, and Holtby was brilliant on the third. The Caps used the momentum from those kills to expand their lead late in the second.
Having killed three Canes power plays in less than 10 minutes of playing time, Washington made it 2-0 on Backstrom's second goal, just 19 seconds after completing the third of those shorthanded missions. Ovechkin picked up an errant Warren Foegele pass in neutral ice, took off on a 2-on-1, and fed Backstrom for his second of the night at 14:21.
Less than two minutes later, Canes defenseman Dougie Hamilton surrendered his lunch money and the puck to Ovechkin behind the Carolina net without even being asked. Brett Connolly walked off the bench and into a perfect feed from the captain, beating the soon-to-be-beleaguered Mrazek to make it a 3-0 game at 16:11.
"Special teams were terrible," says Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour. "Our whole game was terrible. That was just kind of the beginning of it. But it was a 1-0 game and we get three power plays in a row and don't even execute, so that - to me - is where the tipping point kind of went. They just took it from there."
The Canes came back from multiple-goal deficits to pull within a goal of the Caps in losing each of the first two games of the series, but Carolina would leave the building on Saturday night with nothing to hang its hat on.
With 68 seconds of a carryover power play to start the third, the Caps made it 4-0 on a Tom Wilson goal. That one came via an athletic, vertical leap from Carlson to keep the puck in at the right point. Carlson got it to the net, and Wilson scored on a goalmouth scramble.
Midway through the third, Hamilton hacked Nic Dowd on a breakaway, causing Dowd's shot to ring iron, and resulting in a penalty shot. Dowd schooled Mrazek, channeling fellow St. Cloud St. alum and beloved ex-Cap Matt Hendricks' shootout exploits to make it a 5-0 game at 8:57.
Carolina continued to have difficulty getting out of its own way. When a Dmitry Orlov turnover resulted in a breakaway for the Canes, Wallmark quickly took a holding call before Carolina could even get into Washington ice.
Precisely two seconds into the ensuing Washington power play, Ovechkin closed out the scoring with a one-timer from center point following a Backstrom face-off win and a Kuznetsov tee-up.
In a puzzling late-game sequence, Brind'Amour actually pulled Mrazek for an extra attacker with his team looking up at a six-goal deficit and less than three minutes remaining. The Caps took a penalty seconds later, and the Canes coach put Mrazek back in.
It didn't matter. Carolina came away empty, Holtby got his shutout, and the Caps took the lead in the series. As the criminally underappreciated Butch Hancock sings, "firewater seeks its own level," and the Caps certainly found theirs.
"That's much closer to how our team identity needs to look," says Reirden, "and certainly we're going to need every bit of that going back to Carolina here."