PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the better part of five games exploiting the few chances the Washington Capitals gave them, focusing on generating quality scoring chances while the Presidents’ Trophy winners seemed more intent on quantity.
In the span of 80 minutes – from the third period of Game 5 through a one-sided Washington victory in Game 6 on Monday – whatever open ice Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the defending Stanley Cup champions enjoyed while building a 3-1 series lead effectively disappeared.
Now the NHL’s highest-scoring offense finds itself heading to Wednesday night’s Game 7 looking to regain its swagger in time to prevent the kind of collapse that usually befalls their longtime rivals this time of year.
What the Penguins need to do if they want to take the next step in becoming the first Stanley Cup champion in nearly 20 years to repeat is pretty clear. Doing it, however, is another matter entirely.
“We need to get more zone time,” Crosby said. “We can wear them down a little bit more there. Get to their zone a little bit more often.”
Between 2:29 into the third period of Game 5 and 12:29 into the third of Game 6, the Capitals ripped off eight straight goals. The first three rallied Washington from a 2-1 deficit to keep its season alive. The next five overwhelmed Pittsburgh on its home ice to tie the series for the first time since the puck dropped in Game 1.
Pittsburgh registered just one shot in the first 17 minutes of Game 6, that one a 136-foot knuckler on a clear by defenseman Brian Dumoulin that just happened to make its way to Washington goaltender Braden Holtby. The Penguins finished with just 18 over the course of the game, a pair of late goals by Malkin and budding rookie star Jake Guentzel making the final score a bit more respectable but no less decisive.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has become an expert in his 18 months on the job expertly pressing all the right buttons. Game 6 was the rare misfire. He reunited the “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel that worked so well during last spring’s Cup run and the trio responded by generating one shot on goal.
By Tuesday the reunion was already in the rearview mirror, with all three players on separate lines during a brief by spirited practice. Though “HBK” was hardly the only group that had issues. Crosby played 20 mostly ineffective minutes, his most notable sequence coming in the first period when he became tangled with Washington defenseman John Carlson and ended up going headfirst into the end boards.
A week removed from a concussion that sidelined him for a game, Crosby ended up skating slowly off the ice after what he described as having the wind knocked out of him. He didn’t miss a shift and stressed he felt fine.
“I mean, if you’re looking for a test if you’re back, it’s a good one,” he joked.
Read more: Crosby says he was cleared by Penguins medical staff after crashing into boards
Consider the play symbolic of the way Washington has bottled up the Penguins while evening the series. The Penguins are fine with getting outshot so long as they’re not outscored. Now they’re doing neither. Just as troubling as the lack of pucks they’ve sent Holtby’s way over the last two games is where those pucks have come from. Save for a couple of tight saves in the middle of Game 5 that kept the Capitals within striking distance, Holtby has rarely been tested.
“I don’t think we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to establish the way we want to play,” Sullivan said. “But you have to give Washington credit too. We’ve got to execute to handle that pressure.”
While Pittsburgh takes a fair amount of history into Game 7 – where the franchise is 5-0 in winner-take-alls on the road – the Penguins also have fizzled out. They lost a 3-1 lead to the New York Rangers in the second round of 2014, scoring just three goals over the final three games, a meltdown that cost coach Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero their jobs.
That wasn’t an issue last May as the Penguins won a pair of elimination games in the conference finals to reach the Cup on the way to their fourth championship. Despite the blowout in Game 6, they’re still right there.
“If we do a little bit better job of (playing in their end), everything else will fall into place,” Crosby said.