- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2016

Much of what the Pittsburgh Penguins have done this season has been performed while going upstream. It began with a three-loss wobble. There were only five wins during a season obit-inspiring December. Their starting goaltender was later hurt and replaced by a touted rookie, but a rookie nonetheless.

So, when defenseman Ben Lovejoy speaks in front of the same steel-framed locker he spoke from on Saturday, he wants people to know things have gone poorly before during this season and that the Penguins were fine. It’s the message he put forth after a Game 1 overtime road loss to the Washington Capitals. The thought anchored his comments after a 3-1 loss in Game 5, forcing the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Capitals back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Tuesday.

“Our team has become resilient,” Lovejoy said. “We had a lot to go through this year. Since Christmas time, we’ve had to figure out how to be resilient, how to come back from losses, how to come back from games where we don’t feel we played our best. We will go to work the next two days and come out ready for the next game.”

Mistakes Saturday night loosened Pittsburgh’s hold on the series. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s turnover put the puck on Justin Williams’ stick. Williams took two hard strides, then beat Penguins goaltender Matt Murray between the knees for the Capitals‘ third goal of the night. Officially, it was listed as unassisted. Empirically, the credit, or blame, falls to Dumoulin.

Any red marker in hand during Pittsburgh’s preparation for the series would have been used to highlight concern about the Capitals‘ power play. During the regular season, Washington was fifth in the league with a 21.9 power-play conversion percent. The playoffs accentuated the issue, with nine of the Capitals‘ 23 goals, entering Saturday, scored on the power play.

Add two on Saturday. Alex Ovechkin’s one-timer flamed toward the back of the net before the public address announcer could explain who was in the penalty box and why. (It was Bryan Rust for hooking.) T.J. Oshie’s goal put Washington in front, 2-1. The processes leading to the goals left the Penguins in an ambiguous state of lament and hope.


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“I think for long stretches of the game, we were the better team,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we had the puck more. I thought we controlled territory. I thought five-on-five, our play was pretty strong. They get two power play goals, they get an opportunistic goal five-on-five…”

Akin to Lovejoy, Murray sat in the same spot fielding questions similar to those from Game 1. The only shifts for him were that his Penguins baseball cap was rotated backward and Marc-Andre Fleury’s shadow had grown. Fleury, the usual and effective starter, has not played since March 31 because of his second concussion in a four-month period.

The weight of the playoffs was hoisted onto Murray’s back following Fleury’s injury. Fleury continues to progress, stoking wonder if he will be ready — and if Sullivan would be willing — to let him swoop in for closure of the Capitals. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old rookie goaltender works to hang in after three of the Capitals‘ 19 shots went in Saturday.

Big picture, the Penguins are trying to fend off a rarity. Teams that take a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series are 261-28 — a 90.3 percent success rate. Just twice this season has Pittsburgh lost at least three consecutive games: Once was when the sky was falling following an 0-3 start which included a loss in the home opener. The other was in the midst of the December malaise, which led to the firing of coach Mike Johnston.

For a suggestion of caution, the Penguins only have to look at the Capitals cracking last postseason. They joined the sorrowful legacy of teams to be in front 3-1, only to lose the lead. Two years ago, the Penguins coughed up their own two-game advantage, falling to the New York Rangers in the second round.

“We’ll put the game behind us, but nothing’s easy,” Sullivan said. “This is a hard league. It’s hard to win. We’re playing against a really good team. We think we’re a really good team. But, as far as the game is concerned, for us, we’ve got to have a short memory.

“We’ve got to take the good things we did tonight and we have to build on it. We just have to win a game. That’s what we’re going to focus on. This team has done a remarkable job all year of making sure we respond the right way. Like I said before, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy. This is a hard-fought series. We’ll go back to work and we’ll try to win the game right in front of us Tuesday. That’s been our approach all year and that’s not going to change. We’re going to look at that game right in front of us, we’re going to do everything we can to win.”

If not, Pittsburgh will return to Washington for Thursday night’s heart-rattling Game 7. Lovejoy and Murray will be seated in the same place. They will just want the questions to be different at the end.

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