You can't win three games until you first win two, and you can't win two until you first win one.
On Saturday night at Verizon Center, the Caps got one. Washington came from behind in the third period to down the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in Game 5 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. Down 2-1 heading into the final frame, the Caps scored three times in less than five minutes to knot the score, take the lead and add an insurance strike.
Caps coach Barry Trotz challenged his best players to be better in Game 5 after some were lackluster in Wednesday's Game 4 loss. Those players rose to the occasion in the third period of Game 5; Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the third-period goals while Braden Holtby stopped all 12 shots he faced in the final frame - the most saves he has made in a period in this series - and he looked sharp and assertive in doing so.
"I thought all of them responded," says Trotz, "Backy, Ovi, Kuzy. They all scored, and those are our key contributors for us."
Video: Three-goal 3rd sends Caps past Pens in Game 5, 4-2
Trotz changed up his lines heading into Game 5, doing so to good effect. He moved Ovechkin to a unit with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, and put Burakovsky on the left side of the line Ovechkin vacated, with Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
For the first time in the series, the Caps scored more than two goals at five-on-five. Washington again went with a seven defensemen/11 forwards alignment, and all three of its lines scored at even strength on Saturday.
"I was hoping to get some scoring out of Burakovsky," says Trotz. "We got that tonight. Eller had a couple of assists; I thought he was real strong. It was more of our lineup, that we got the contributions from, and that has been [similar to] the success we had during the regular season."
Video: Coach Trotz on the 4-2 win in #CapsPens Game 5
For the fourth time in five games in the series, the Penguins drew first blood. Midway through the first frame, the Caps gave Carl Hagelin too much time and space in the middle of the ice, and he beat Holtby on the short side for a 1-0 Pens lead at 10:24, the shot glancing off Holtby's glove.
As they've done frequently in this series, the Caps dominated play in the first, but they were on the verge of being blanked for the first 20 minutes again when Burakovsky intervened in the final minute of the frame. Taking a feed from Oshie, Burakovsky entered the Pittsburgh zone and lined up a shot. Seeing Pens pivot Matt Cullen moving into position to block it, Burakovsky waited for Cullen to slide by, then slipped a shot past Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on the short side with 29.7 seconds left in the period.
Pittsburgh regained its lead on a power play early in the second, getting a Phil Kessel goal from just above the goal line on the weak side at 4:20 of the middle stanza.
Video: ALL CAPS | May 6
Neither team was able to generate much at five-on-five over the remainder of the second, and despite permitting just 10 shots on net and a mere 21 shot attempts in the game's first 40 minutes, the Caps found themselves down 2-1 headed to the third period of an elimination game.
Washington didn't waste much time. Before the third period was three minutes old, the game was even.
Backstrom carried from his own goal line, giving to Burakovsky in neutral ice. Burakovsky went back to Backstrom, who quickly put it in the back of the net from the left circle at 2:49.
Just after the seven-minute mark, Kuznetsov netted what would prove to be the game-winner. John Carlson made a strong play to keep the puck in Pittsburgh territory at the right point, breathing new life into an offensive-zone shift for the Capitals. Kuznetsov collected it and dropped it to Marcus Johansson, who let go of a drive from center point. That shot was blocked in front, but Kuznetsov scooped up the rebound and scored from virtually no angle to give the Caps their first lead of the night, 3-2 at 7:20.
Video: Caps players talk after a 4-2 win in Game 6
Asked what kind of angle he saw for himself on the shot, Kuznetsov's reply was terse, yet vivid. "Bad," he said.
Twenty-seven seconds later, Ovechkin frosted the cake with a rush goal, picking up the shrapnel and firing the puck past Fleury on the short side after Pens defenseman Ron Hainsey blocked his original bid.
"We obviously gave them life when they got the first goal [of the third period]," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. "We thought we had pretty good control of the game at that point. We talked about being strong at the lines; that's an important part of winning at this time of year.
"I thought that goal was avoidable. So we gave [the Caps] life. Give them credit; they're good players, they scored a couple of key goals to get them back in the game. But I think a lot of the third period, we had some pushback, we had some opportunities, we had some real high quality chances. We didn't convert."
Video: Penguins head coach Sullivan on #CapsPens Game 5
Each of the first three - and five of the first eight - shots Holtby faced in the third period came from inside of 30 feet away, and he gobbled them all up. On one Pittsburgh shift when the score was still tied at 2-2, Holtby thwarted both Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino from the middle of the ice.
"Holts really stepped it up," says Trotz. "We got a lot of energy from the saves that he made. In the third, they obviously had a push when we got up a couple there, and I thought he was huge."
Most importantly, he wasn't the only player in a red sweater who was huge on this night. Down 3-2 in the series now, the Capitals still have much work to do to try to even the set, and their season will once again be on the line Monday night in Pittsburgh when the two teams meet again in Game 6.