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Round 2

Capitals aim to seize opportunity in Game 6 against Penguins

Can eliminate two-time defending Cup champions, reach conference final for first time since 1998

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin said it on April 25, the day before the Washington Capitals opened the Eastern Conference Second Round, beginning their latest attempt to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins and reach the conference final.

"One day, it has to happen," Washington's captain said.

That one day could be Monday.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

With a growing belief that this is finally their year, the Capitals head to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. After a 6-3 victory in Game 5 on Saturday, they need one more win to eliminate the Penguins and advance to the conference final for the first time since 1998.

That would also end the Penguins' quest to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders' run of four straight championships from 1980-83.

"You've just got to take this as an opportunity," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Sunday. "We've got a little more wiggle room than them. We've got to bring our best our game, and we've got to push our game to the next level. There's no ifs, ands or buts; we've got to do that. This is a very good opponent, and we're going to have to be really, really good."

The Penguins have every reason to be confident they'll keep their season alive and force a Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday. During their run of nine consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff series wins, they've faced elimination four times: in Games 6 and 7 of the 2016 conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Game 7 of the 2017 second round against the Capitals and in Game 7 of the 2017 conference final against Ottawa Senators.

They needed double overtime against Ottawa, but they found a way to win each of those games.

"It's all about an attitude going in, and I believe our guys have the right attitude," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "They believe in themselves, they know they're capable and really what we're looking at is going out and winning one hockey game, and that's all we need to do."

The Capitals will be desperate Monday as well. Coming home for a Game 7 would bring back all kinds of nightmares. They are 4-11 in their history in Game 7s, including 3-8 at home. Against the Penguins, the Capitals are 0-4 in Game 7s, including 0-3 at home.

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A 2-0 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 in Washington last season was one of the most painful in their history. Washington came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 before wilting under the pressure at home. The lingering disappointment from that loss is driving the Capitals now, but there's no doubt they'd prefer to avoid another Game 7.

In the Ovechkin-Crosby era, which began when they entered the League in 2005-06, Washington has had six chances to advance to the conference final with a win and lost all six games. That includes a 6-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals and last season's Game 7. It also includes a 2012 Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers and blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers in 2015, when they lost Games 5 and 7 in New York in overtime.

That was the last time the Capitals had more than one chance in the second round to advance and wasted the opportunity. If they are looking for positive reinforcement, they can point to their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets this season: After winning Game 5 at home in overtime, they went to Columbus and finished off the series with a 6-3 win in Game 6.

"I think [it helps] having some knowledge and experience of how we have to play, and the buy-in that you need to close out an opponent has to be exceptional," Trotz said. "I think we had that the last series and we're going to need that in this series."

The Penguins are a different animal, though. They're two-time champions with a proven ability to elevate their play when facing elimination.

"It brings out everyone's best," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said Saturday. "You don't have anything to save it for. You go out there with one focus, which is to win a hockey game and get it to a Game 7."

The Penguins have long been a thorn in the Capitals' side, defeating them in nine of the previous 10 series they've played. Washington held a 3-2 lead three times and won once (in the 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals), but this is the first time since 1995 it's had this kind of opportunity against Pittsburgh.

After setting up linemate Jakub Vrana's winning goal Saturday, Ovechkin didn't have much interest in talking about how tough it will be to win Game 6 in Pittsburgh.

"Every game is tough," he said.

If the Capitals win, it would be the biggest victory of Ovechkin's career, but he wouldn't be alone in that. Trotz also has never made it past the second round in his 19 NHL seasons -- 15 with the Nashville Predators and the past four with Washington.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik is the only player on the Capitals to have won the Stanley Cup; he did it with Pittsburgh in 2009. Orpik, defenseman Matt Niskanen (2013 with Pittsburgh) and center Lars Eller (2014 with the Montreal Canadiens) are the only Capitals to have played in a conference final.

"I imagine this will be one of the toughest games any of us have ever faced," Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. "You got a back-to-back champion, you got them up against the wall and you're going to get their best. Their best is pretty good, and we've got to find a way to be better."

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