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Berube: Capitals need centers to step up in Game 5

Former coach says Washington must get more from Backstrom, Kuznetsov against Pittsburgh

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

For additional insight into the Eastern Conference Second Round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Craig Berube to break down the action. Berube will be checking in throughout the series.

Berube, 50, was the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers from 2013-15. He was a Flyers' assistant coach for six seasons prior to being promoted to coach on Oct. 7, 2013. The Flyers were 75-58-28 under Berube. They made the Stanley Cup Playoffs and lost to the Rangers in the first round in 2014.

PITTSBURGH -- If the Washington Capitals are to mount a comeback in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they're going to have to start winning the battle at the center position.

Through four games, and a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-7 series, the Capitals are losing it, badly. Pittsburgh's centers have combined for nine points in the series; Washington's centers have three.

"[Nicklas] Backstrom and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov have to do more," former Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube said.

Video: Capitals react to Game 4 OT loss to Penguins

Berube hasn't seen enough creativity from either of the Capitals' top two centers. He hasn't seen them punish the Penguins by creating scoring opportunities the way they have all season.

Backstrom has one point, an assist on Ovechkin's goal in Game 3. Kuznetsov also has one point, an assist on Marcus Johansson's game-tying power-play goal in Game 2. Kuznetsov has two points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, both on the power play.

"They're a big part of their game," Berube said. "Backstrom and Kuznetsov are two great players. They're both top scorers on their team, leading point getters on their team. They do need them to produce, they do need them to get momentum by creating opportunities."

For the Penguins, Matt Cullen, their 39-year-old fourth-line center, scored a go-ahead goal in Game 4 by getting inside position on Backstrom so he could catch up to the puck before scoring on a breakaway. He also had an assist on Tom Kuhnhackl's goal in Game 3, scored off a 2-on-1 that was helped by a misplay in the neutral zone by Backstrom.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Cullen goes five-hole to give Pens lead

Pittsburgh's top three centers, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, have combined for seven points on two goals and five assists in the series

"Backstrom on Cullen's goal, that's a tough play," Berube said. "He needs to cover him there. He just let him get in behind him. It's off a faceoff and their defense is going to press up on the walls like they're supposed to and the centerman has got to cover over the centerman, but Cullen snuck behind him and ended up getting the breakaway."

Berube thinks Backstrom and Kuznetsov could find a spark in their game on the power play if the Capitals could get that going. It's been a struggle for them since Game 4 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. That's when the Flyers started pressuring Backstrom; the Capitals power play hasn't adjusted and has gone 1-for-22 in seven games since.

"The Flyers started putting real pressure on Backstrom down the wall and so has Pittsburgh, and its created difficulty for the Capitals to get any good opportunities to score on the power play," Berube said. "They've always lived off the power play. It's been very good for a number of years now so it will definitely give them a boost and it will definitely help out guys like Backstrom and Kuznetsov if they can get it going. But Pittsburgh has done a great job of pressuring. They're not giving them anything and they're doing a great job blocking shots."

Berube is surprised to see the Capitals on the brink after four games in the series. He said they haven't done enough to rattle the clearly confident Penguins and their rookie goalie, Matt Murray, who has a .938 save percentage in the series (135 saves on 144 shots).

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Murray preserves tie with pair of stops

"Again, and I'll go back to it, I just don't see [the Capitals getting] enough second and third opportunities around the net," Berube said. "I just want to see more traffic and more chaos around that net. Just more, more, more. It's not tough enough on Murray. If these goalies can see it they're going to stop it."

Berube isn't ready to call the Capitals done just yet.

"I would never count them out," he said. "They're the type of team that can win a tight game in Game 5 and be right back in it. I wouldn't count them out at all, not with the players they have and the goalie they have."

He's also curious to see how the Penguins handle being in the driver's seat in the series. He said he has always viewed Game 5 as being just as important for the team with the series lead as it is for the team that is in a must-win situation.

"It's not a matter of winning and losing it so much, it's a matter of how you play," Berube said. "If [the Penguins] don't win it's not the end of the world if they played well and could have won. That's different from not playing well at all and losing. That's when a lot of momentum goes the other way.

"I've been on both ends of these things, when you're up 3-1 as a player and down 3-1 as a player, and I'll tell you right now, anything can happen."

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