PITTSBURGH -- The home of the Stanley Cup champions, so quiet most of the night, started to empty with 8:43 left in the third period Monday. Thousands of fans had seen enough of the Pittsburgh Penguins after the Washington Capitals' fourth goal, streaming to the exits in their gold giveaway T-shirts. More fans joined them after the Capitals scored again 1:12 later.
By the time the Penguins finally scored with 3:22 to go, PPG Paints Arena was more than half-empty. A worker heard the horn underneath the stands.
"What was that?" he said. "A mercy goal?"
The Penguins lost 5-2 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round. Now that their 3-1 series lead has been erased, there will be no mercy in Game 7 at Verizon Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). There is a good chance those fans won't be back until next season. The Penguins' quest to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 is in serious jeopardy.
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It goes without saying the Penguins cannot play Game 7 the way they played Game 6. They fell behind 5-0. They were outshot 26-18. They had one shot through the first 17:25, a 136-foot clear on a penalty kill by defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and five shots through the first 33:36.
Asked what went wrong, Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey said: "Is that a trick question? Pretty much everything. We didn't do really much of anything that we wanted. Played in our half of the arena, our zone, the majority of the first 40 minutes and then obviously opened it up in the third and got caught. When you've got five shots with [less than seven] minutes left in the second, you're not getting much going. From breakouts to turnovers in the neutral zone to sustained offensive zone play, we had really none of it."
About sums it up.
"Tonight's not good enough," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "I mean, we made things a little more difficult on ourselves, having to go into Washington for Game 7, but that's the way it stands right now. Got to forget this one and turn the page really quickly. But we can't expect the result we wanted with playing like that."
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Holtby shuts the door on Rust's attempt
But the Penguins' problems go deeper than the way they played in Game 6. It seems their problems are catching up to them. They have been outshot 10 times in 11 games in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. They have been outshot by double-digit margins in five of their past seven games. They are controlling 41.93 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 in these playoffs, by far the worst among the 16 teams.
With top defenseman Kris Letang out with a neck injury, the Penguins have struggled to break out of their own zone, speed through the neutral zone and sustain pressure in the offensive zone.
They dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round and took a 3-1 lead against the Capitals despite that, relying on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, blocked shots and opportunistic scoring. But they blew a 2-1 lead in Game 5, allowed three third-period goals and lost 4-2. Defenseman Trevor Daley, already dealing with a lower-body injury, couldn't play in Game 6. Things got worse.
Spending too much time in the defensive zone leads to penalties. The Capitals went 2-for-4 on the power play in Game 6. Spending too little time in the offensive zone leads to … well, too little offense. The Penguins suddenly don't have the offensive depth they did last year. Nick Bonino hasn't scored in five games, Chris Kunitz in six, Bryan Rust in six, Tom Kuhnhackl in seven, Conor Sheary in 10.
Coach Mike Sullivan reunited the "HBK Line" that was so successful against the Capitals in the second round last year, particularly in Game 6, producing all four Penguins goals in a 4-3 overtime win. But he broke up Carl Hagelin, Bonino and Phil Kessel after less than two periods Monday.
"We're not dictating the terms consistently enough out there, and I think the shot clock is an indication of that," Sullivan said. "We have to do a better job of hanging onto pucks, coming out of our end zone, making good decisions through the neutral zone. When we do put the puck in, we've got to do a better job of where we put it, and we've got to go in cooperatively so that we can hang onto the puck."
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Malkin taps home second effort
The Penguins can do a better job, of course. But they have been talking about the same things over and over, and they have been outshot 200-133 in this series. They can win Game 7 the way they have won before, if Fleury plays well, if they block shots, if they cash in on chances, but it seems highly unlikely they will outplay the Capitals, the back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners, who have the opportunity to avenge their second-round loss to the Penguins last year and make the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998.
"They have the capability to outplay you," Hainsey said, "and they outplayed us, plain and simple."