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Capitals ride Holtby, defense to Eastern Conference Final

Goalie, unsung heroes help Washington advance, end Penguins' bid for three-peat

by Brian McNally / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- The Washington Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 with a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the second round.

Washington was 1-9 in Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Penguins and had not defeated them since a six-game win in the 1994 conference quarterfinals. The Capitals will play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final with Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

 

[RELATED: Ovechkin gets first taste of Eastern Final]

 

Here are 5 reasons the Capitals advanced:

 

1. Braden Holtby

The goaltender continued his strong play from the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, when he replaced Philipp Grubauer in Game 2 after not starting a playoff series opener for the first time since 2011. Holtby stopped 151 of 164 shots against the Penguins (.921 save percentage). Through two rounds, Holtby has a 2.04 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

 

2. Overcoming adversity

The Capitals won Game 6 without three top-six forwards: Tom Wilson (suspension), Nicklas Backstrom (upper body) and Andre Burakovsky (upper body). Wilson also was suspended for Games 4 and 5. Burakovsky didn't play in the series.

"This group has been resilient ...," coach Barry Trotz said. "The great thing about this is all day I knew we were going to win. I don't know why, but this group has a lot of resiliency."

Video: Discussing the Caps' Game 6 OT win over the Penguins

 

3. Russian connection

The series began with an even-strength goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov on a pass from Alex Ovechkin 17 seconds into Game 1 and ended the same way at 5:27 of overtime in Game 6.

Kuznetsov and Ovechkin combined for six goals and seven assists against the Penguins. Dmitry Orlov earned the secondary assist on Kuznetsov's game-winner to send Ovechkin to the conference final for the first time in his 13-year NHL career.

"I see [Kuznetsov] was over there and I just put the puck in space and he did what he does best," Ovechkin said. "It feels great. Never been in this position before and I'm looking forward to [the conference final]."

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Kuznetsov ends series with OT winner

 

4. Unsung heroes

With Backstrom, Burakovsky and Wilson out, Washington needed others to step up, and they did. Rookie forward Jakub Vrana, moved to the top line because of Wilson's absence, scored the winning goal in Game 5. Forwards Nathan Walker and Travis Boyd made their NHL playoff debuts in Game 6. Walker, waived twice this season, assisted on a goal by Alex Chiasson, who was invited to training camp in September on a tryout agreement. Walker had not played since skating for Hershey of the American Hockey League on April 15.

 

5. Shutdown defense

The Capitals used a team effort to limit the Penguins to 14 goals (2.33 per game) and didn't allow more than three in any game. Holtby was superb, but the commitment to defense was more evident than in past seasons. Washington limited Pittsburgh to nine goals at even strength, allowed four goals to Pittsburgh's bottom three lines and defensemen, and shut down the top line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist when Games 5 and 6 were on the line.

***

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