Washington's season came to an end here in Pittsburgh last May when Nick Bonino scored an overtime goal in Game 6 to push the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final and push the Caps out of the playoffs.
For the second straight spring, the Caps and Penguins are going at it in the second round. For the second straight spring, Pittsburgh rolled to a 3-1 series lead. And for the second straight spring, the Caps forced a Game 6 back in Pittsburgh with a two-goal win over the Pens in Washington in Game 5.
"Seldom in life to you get a chance to be in the position that we were last year, and the position that we were a couple of games ago," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "So it's just an opportunity.
"We're going to focus on tonight. We have to; if we don't focus on tonight, then all last game has done is give us an opportunity to continue to play. That's how we have to approach tonight."
Video: Coach Trotz talks before #CapsPens Game 6
After that Game 6 loss last May 10, the Caps spent much of the next year gearing up for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, eager to atone for what they believed was an early exit last year. Now, they are in the exact same spot.
"This is a different team this year," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "This is a new year, new situation. It looks similar, but it's different. We're focused on what we've worked for all year, to come through in these situations. It all comes down to preparation and just living in the moment."
In Game 6 of the series with the Pens last year, the Caps fell down 3-0 by the midpoint of the second period, and they were also down to five defensemen, having lost stalwart blueliner Karl Alzner to a lower body injury. But T.J. Oshie scored a power-play goal late in the second to cut the deficit to 3-1. Justin Williams scored before the third period was half over, and then John Carlson tied it on another Washington power play in the third, when Pittsburgh was guilty of three delay of game (puck over the glass) penalties.
The Caps have been chasing this series and chasing games in this series, so they'd love to grab an early lead and build on it. But any scenario that forces a Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday is going to be fine with them.
"It's kind of the same scenario," says Oshie. "There are some different parts to each team, but same scenario. It should be interesting to see how we respond. Last year in Game 6 was not the result we wanted, and not how we wanted to play.
"You don't get too many chances for do overs, and we've got one. So we've got to take advantage of it."
Video: Caps players talk to media prior to #CapsPens Game 6
Lather, Rinse, Repeat - The Caps are coming into Monday's Game 6 on the heels of one of their best 60-minute performances of the playoffs in Saturday's Game 5, and that holds particularly true for the third period when the Caps scored three unanswered goals in less than five minutes to turn a 2-1 third-period deficit into a 4-2 victory.
The Capitals outhit Pittsburgh by 38-15 in Game 5, and the ongoing physicality coupled with Washington's offensive zone time seemed to exact a toll on the Penguins as the contest wore on.
"I don't know," answers Trotz, when asked whether he believes his team is having an erosive effect on the Penguins. "That's something you'd have to ask their room. But we're going to continue to do what we do. We've been chasing the series, obviously losing the first two games at home. We've just got to keep playing the way we have been. We're going to play the right way, and we have to play for keeps now. There is nowhere to go for us, so we've got to get this game."
Finding a way to bottle up their Game 5 performance and to put it forth against the Pens in Pittsburgh tonight would appear to offer the Caps their best chance at forcing a Game 7.
"In a lot of these playoffs," says Oshie, "there has been a lot of mental errors that we normally just don't make. And for us to play a full 60 [minutes], we've got to get those out of our game.
"In Game 5, there were one or two bad ones, but other than that, we got a lot of those errors out and we were able just to play. We forgot about the pressure or whatever it was. We just went out and we played our game, and we stuck with it for a full 60. That's what it's going to take here tonight."
The way Game 5 played out was more to Washington's identity, too. The Caps were extremely physical early, and they had some extended shifts in the attack zone. Although they trailed after 40 minutes of play, they were even on the board at five-on-five, and they had limited the Pens to just 10 shots on net and 21 shot attempts through two periods.
In the third, they scored early and often, seizing the momentum and never letting go of it. Then they locked it down.
"I think this team has been a pretty good momentum team," says Oshie. "Once we get rolling, we feel free and we just play our game and I think that's when we're at our best.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | May 8
Seconds Of Pleasure - In the first four games of this series, Pittsburgh scored seven goals in the second period, accounting for half of all of its offense in those four contests.
The Pens scored again in the middle stanza of Game 5, but they did so on the power play, getting a Phil Kessel goal with the extra man. But after surrendering 35 shots in the middle period of the first three games of this series, the Caps have permitted just seven shots on net in the last two games. Unfortunately for Washington, three of those seven shots have been goals, with two of them coming on the power play.
Washington hopes it is able to continue to thwart the Pens at five-on-five in the middle frame tonight in Pittsburgh.
"The second period in games is always big," says Caps winger Marcus Johansson. "You can get stuck in your own end for a long time, and the other way around. When we play the right way and when we get the puck in, we're a really tough team to try to take the puck off of and try to go the other way.
"If we can do that - especially in the second periods - that's when you start wearing [the opposition] down and they can get tired being out there for a minute or a minute and a half and trying to defend. That's part of the way you want to play to wear them down and to get some momentum going your way."
Video: Rinkside Update: Marcus Johansson | May 8
Daley Out - Veteran Pittsburgh blueliner Trevor Daley will miss Monday's Game 6 with a lower body injury, and Chad Ruhwedel is expected to draw into the lineup as Daley's replacement. The 27-year-old Ruhwedel will be making his Stanley Cup playoff debut.
"If Chad Ruhwedel plays for us tonight," begins Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, "we expect him to bring the game that he's brought for us all year. He's a real mobile guy, he can skate, he can get back to pucks, he helps us get out of our end zone, he defends really well with his stick. He has been a good player for us all year long, and we expect him to play his game."
Ruhwedel has played in 67 career regular season games, compared to 894 regular season games and 60 playoff games for Daley.
"I don't think it will be that tough," says Ruhwedel. "It's a high stakes game and the adrenaline will take care of itself. It's going to take a shift to get back to full game speed, but once that first shift has started, the rest will take care of itself."
Video: Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks before Game 6
In The Nets - Holtby limited the Pens to two goals on 22 shots in Game 5 on Saturday, extending Washington's season at least through the weekend. Holtby is now 4-7 during his career against the Penguins in the playoffs, and all four of those victories have come in games in which he has permitted exactly two goals. In each of those seven losses to Pittsburgh, Holtby has surrendered three or more goals against.
Lifetime in the postseason, Holtby is now 28-29. He is 25-11 when permitting two or fewer goals, and he is 3-18 when surrendering three or more goals.
In winning Game 5, Holtby made a dozen stops in the third period, the most saves he has made in any stanza in the series. Asked whether he found himself in the third period of that game, Holtby responded thusly:
"A little bit. There was a little more action, which always helps. It helps get the body warm and the reads happening. So that helps. Those high-pressure situations are always fun. They're fun to challenge yourself and your team. I think we were all prepared for that third period, and I think that's how we have to play for three periods in this game."
For the first time in five games in the series, the Capitals were able to reach Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for more than two goals in the 60 minutes of regulation time in Saturday's Game 5. The Caps scored one goal in the first 40 minutes of Game 5 before erupting for three goals in a span of just 4:58 early in the third period.
"Just today in general probably was my worst one of the playoffs, I think," Fleury opined after Game 5. "I kind of want to forget about it and move on."
Fleury's coach had a less harsh view of his goaltender's performance in Game 5.
"I thought he was solid," says Sullivan. "He has made save after save for us. The goals they scored were good goals. I think we can do a better job in front of him."
In five home games in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Fleury is 4-1 with a 1.79 GAA and a .954 save pct. In five road games, he is 3-2 with a 3.31 GAA and a .902 save pct.
In five first-round games against Columbus, Fleury fashioned a 2.52 GAA and a .933 save pct. In five games in this series against Washington, he is at 2.61 and .925.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals to look when they take to the ice at PPG Paints Arena on Monday night for another do or die contest in Game 6, and a guess as to how the Pens will look tonight as well.
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
8-Ovechkin, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
59-Guentzel, 87-Crosby, 72-Hornqvist
43-Sheary, 71-Malkin, 17-Rust
62-Hagelin, 13-Bonino, 81-Kessel
14-Kunitz, 7-Cullen, 34-Kuhnhackl
6-Daley (lower body)
30-Murray (lower body)
58-Letang (neck surgery)