It was a night of surprises.
After missing Game Four with a concussion, captain Sidney Crosby made a triumphal return to the Penguins’ lineup, by all appearances fit as a fiddle and rarin’ to go. On the flip side, slumping Capitals counterpart Alex Ovechkin was unceremoniously dropped to the third line by his coach, Barry Trotz.
The end result caught me off guard, too.
Entering the third period of Game Five clutching a 2-1 lead, it seemed the Penguins had taken the Capitals’ best punch. Marc-Andre Fleury, who’d stopped 17 of 18 shots during the first 40 minutes, appeared to be on his game. Although we weren’t matching the Caps shot for shot, our guys had done a much better job on the transition, while minimizing Washington’s offensive zone time.
I thought we had ‘em.
Then Kate, a favorite waitress at the Pennsbury Pub and Grille where I viewed the game, issued an ominous between-periods warning.
“I don’t like the look of things,” she confided.
How right she was.
The Caps struck for three goals in the first 7:27 of the third period—including two during a whiz-bang 27-second span—to snatch a 4-2 victory from the jaws of certain defeat. In the process, they forced a Game Six in the ‘Burgh on Monday night.
Give the Capitals credit. With their season on the line, they dug deep and came up with a big effort. Braden Holtby was especially clutch. The much-maligned goalie made key third-period saves on Tom Kuhnhackl (2:14), Nick Bonino (3:26) and Conor Sheary (6:07) when the game was still very much up for grabs to earn third-star honors.
By contrast, Fleury appeared all too mortal. Although the third-period strikes by Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and the hated Ovechkin were hardly softies, they were the type of shots “Flower” had routinely turned aside throughout the postseason.
The late onslaught wiped out some nice early work by the Pens. Surviving a fevered physical assault by their hosts—Tom Wilson in particular—the locals snatched the lead on a timely tally by Carl Hagelin at 10:24 of the opening frame. It was “Hags” first goal of the playoffs; his first since January 20.
After the Capitals knotted the score late in the period on a pretty toe-drag by Andre Burakovsky, the Pens retook the lead courtesy of a holding call to Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt and some pure magic by the power-play unit.
Initiating a textbook sequence of precision passing that required all of four seconds to consummate, Evgeni Malkin set up Patric Hornqvist in the slot. Number 72 promptly slipped a short pass to Sidney Crosby beside the net. Sid, in turn, returned the puck to “Geno” in the right circle.
The rubber had barely touched No. 71’s stick when it was on the move again, traversing the crease to the waiting blade of Phil Kessel, who had crept through the back door below the left circle. In one motion, Phil dropped to a knee in his signature style and whipped a bullet of a shot off Holtby’s blocker pad and into the net.
Unfortunately, the Pens were content to sit on the lead. They registered only three shots on goal during a ho-hum second period, setting the stage for the Capitals’ comeback.
Hornqvist Sends a Message
Hornqvist sent a message—loud and clear—to Capitals defensemen Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov.
Lay off Sid.
The feisty winger drove Niskanen hard into the boards with a purpose check at 12:28 of the third period. Moments after Orlov exchanged heated words with Crosby during a scrum behind the Washington net, Hornqvist pinned the Russian defender against the boards in the Pens’ end and got up close and personal.
Judging by his aggressive posture, “Horny” wasn’t discussing the spring weather…or sharing a recipe for his favorite post-game dish.
Crosby tied Mario Lemieux for the Pens’ all-time lead in playoff assists. Each has 96. Malkin is two behind with 94.
Returning from a concussion, Sheary skated 14:03 and registered a hit and a shot on goal. Matt Murray continues to recover from a lower-body injury.
Washington dominated in shot attempts (66-52), shots on goal (32-22) and hits (38-15). The Pens held the edge in faceoffs (34-22), blocked shots (20-17) and special teams play, going 1-for-2 on the power play. The Caps were 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
The Pens recalled “Black Aces” Frank Corrado, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Cameron Gaunce, Sean Maguire, Kevin Porter, Derrick Pouliot, Tom Sestito, Dominik Simon, David Warsofsky and Garrett Wilson from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Baby Pens were eliminated by Providence in their opening-rounding AHL playoff series, 3-games-to-2.
Daniel Sprong also joined the roster. Sprong, who played in 18 games for the Pens in 2015-16, scored 32 goals in 31 regular-season games with Charlottetown (QMJHL). The sharpshooter tallied nine goals in 12 postseason games for the Islanders.
Pens assistant GM Jason Botterill is expected to be named general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.