WASHINGTON -- Sidney Crosby was back, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were headed toward victory against the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Verizon Center on Saturday.
Five days after sustaining a concussion, Crosby, as is his trademark, battled below the goal line in the offensive zone. He hit the brakes and hunched over to protect the puck as Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt ran into him. He stayed strong on his skates and turned as Schmidt went over his back, drawing a holding call.
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On the ensuing power play, Crosby took a pass down low to the left of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. He passed to Evgeni Malkin in the right circle, Malkin one-touched a pass across the slot to Phil Kessel low in the left circle, and Kessel one-timed it into the net. The Penguins had a 2-1 lead 4:20 into the second period.
Except this isn't as easy as the Penguins have made it look for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals scored three goals in the third period and won 4-2, and now the Penguins will have to try again to eliminate them, leading the best-of-7 series 3-2 with Game 6 at Pittsburgh on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
"It wasn't our best," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "It was disappointing not to finish it off."
Crosby and teammate Conor Sheary returned from concussions sustained in Game 3 May 1.
The NHL Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol states there is no mandatory amount of time a player must sit out following a concussion. A player must satisfy three criteria to return: no concussion-related symptoms at rest, no concussion-related symptoms at exertion levels required for competition and a return to neurocognitive baseline. The team doctor is solely responsible for the decision.
Crosby skated three days in a row. Sheary skated for at least two days. Each participated in a full-contact practice and passed baseline testing Friday, and the Penguins doctor cleared each before the game Saturday. Crosby played 19:10, took three shots on goal and won 15 of 22 faceoffs (68 percent). Sheary played 14:03 and had a shot on goal.
"Felt good," Crosby said.
That's good news for the Penguins, obviously. Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Penguins won the Cup last year, is a finalist for the Hart Trophy this season and is playing at a high level in the playoffs with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in nine games. Sheary has struggled at times but can play a top-six role.
But even with them in the lineup, even though they dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round and took a 3-1 lead on the Capitals, the Penguins have struggled with possession in these playoffs. They have been outshot in nine of their 10 games, spent too much time in their zone and relied on Fleury, blocked shots and opportunistic scoring. It is not normally a recipe for success.
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Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom finished a give-and-go with Andre Burakovsky on the rush 2:49 into the third period Saturday, beating Fleury glove side, tying the game 2-2 and waking up Verizon Center. The Penguins gave up the blue line too easily and Fleury felt he should have stopped the shot.
"We obviously gave them life when they got the first goal," coach Mike Sullivan said. "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."
The Penguins failed to clear their zone, and Capitals center Evgeni Kuznetsov scored from a sharp angle at 7:20. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin followed 27 seconds later, cutting to the middle, shooting, getting it blocked, collecting the puck and shooting it into the upper right corner. Verizon Center went from resigned to rocking.
Fleury allowed four goals on 32 shots while Holtby allowed two on 22. Fleury said he played probably his worst game of the playoffs, even though he allowed four goals on 37 shots in Game 3 of the first round and five on 34 in Game 4 of that series.
Sullivan supported him.
"I thought he was solid," Sullivan said. "He's 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."
Fleury was not solid Saturday. But he has made save after save for the Penguins in the playoffs, and they can do a better job in front of him.
The same thing happened in the second round against the Capitals last year. The Penguins took a 3-1 series lead into Verizon Center, lost Game 5 and closed out in the series in Game 6 back home.
"That's definitely an awesome memory that we have and a good experience for us," Penguins forward Carl Hagelin said. "Our plan is to go home and win a game in Pittsburgh."
But things don't always go according to plan.