- - Sunday, May 7, 2017


In between the second and third periods of Saturday night’s playoff game at the Verizon Center, somebody must have convinced the Washington Capitals that it was December — not May.

You remember the December Washington Capitals, don’t you? The group of players who won 20 out of 29 games that month — including a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins?

It was the December Capitals that emerged from the locker in the third period down 2-1 to the Penguins in this Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals.

It was those Capitals who took the game over Saturday night, with goals from Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kutznetsov and, of course, Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a 4-2 win in Game 5 and send the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 Monday night, with the Penguins leading the best-of-seven series 3-2.

“There’s nothing better than playoff hockey,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after the victory. “Let’s enjoy this. We’re going to have fun in Pittsburgh and see if we get a result.”

Bless Barry Trotz. He was whistling past the graveyard with those comments, because of all the words to describe Washington Capitals playoff hockey, fun isn’t even in the dictionary — at least traditionally not in May.

But it wasn’t May Saturday night at the Verizon Center. It was December, and that’s fun.

The Capitals were cooked and ready to stick a fork in when Pittsburgh scored first on a goal by Carl Hagelin halfway through the first period. Andre Burakovsky scored to tie with 30 seconds left in the period, but the Penguins came back to take the lead on a power play goal by Phil Kessel, and took that 2-1 margin into the dressing room.

It was then when the Capitals turned back time — and came back from the dead.

“We gave them life when we gave them that first goal,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought that goal was avoidable.”

Watching avoidable goals go by had been the story of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, not Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had built a fortress around the net he was protecting in this series. And it looked like Holtby’s postseason story would end as the goalie who allows avoidable goals when it counts the most.

But the December Holtby took the ice with his December teammates in the third period, stopping one Pittsburgh shot after another with spectacular saves, which Trotz said energized the team.

“I thought Holts really stepped it up,” Trotz said. “We got a lot of energy from those saves.”

Trotz, who called out his star players after Washington’s 6-2 loss to the Penguins in game two, made a dramatic change in the lineup before Saturday night’s game, starting Ovechkin on the third line, instead of his normal first-line position. It paid off, opening up the offensive faucet that had been stopped up for this team.

When asked if those players responded, he answered, “They did. They all did.”

Trotz said when his team went into the locker room down 2-1 after the second period – one period away from ending their season — there was no panic, no anger, no frustration. “We were calm,” he said. “We said we got this.”
Of course they had it. It was December.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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