PITTSBURGH — On Monday evening, in separate rooms nestled in the underbelly of PPG Paints Arena, two teams prepared for their game. Inside one, the Pittsburgh Penguins enjoyed the comforts of home. Unburdened by the fear of elimination, a few teammates played a made-up game with a ball out in a hallway, laughing, swearing and kidding each other all the while.
In the other room were the Washington Capitals, facing elimination. They remained loose but focused. Goalie Braden Holtby did his visualization exercises. Even then, there was no knowing how clearly that focus would come through on the ice in the hours that came later.
The Capitals scored in every period, and three times in the third, to beat Pittsburgh 5-2 and force a Game 7 Wednesday in Washington. Aside from two goals allowed in garbage time,they put together their most complete performance of this series and ensured that they would not be eliminated in Game 6 of this series two years in a row.
“There’s nothing more urgent than when your back’s against the wall, in any walk of life,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s human nature sometimes.”
In the five games prior, Pittsburgh displayed a vexing habit of clogging up the space in front of the net and blocking shots.
There are two schools of thought on how to score on a high-volume shot-blocking team, and the Capitals have been trying to figure how to balance them. On the one hand, shooting liberally maximizes the possibility that something gets a good bounce and sneaks in. On the other, when one team devotes bodies to the area in front of the net, the other team gets space and can find high-quality shots if they are patient, and if their passes are crisp and well-designed.
On Monday morning, T.J. Oshie had verbally expressed his faith in the latter philosophy. On Monday night, he did so with his stick.
Sidney Crosby went to the penalty box for hooking 12 minutes into the first period. Playing 5-on-4, the Capitals had the perfect opportunity to seek out good angles. Nicklas Backstrom passed from the right face-off circle and Evgeny Kuznetsov one-timed the puck from behind the net to Oshie in the slot. It was savvy use of geometry, and Oshie scored for his first goal of the series.
Andre Burakovsky’s goal in the second period, though, was a product of the just-shoot-it philosophy. Burakovsky wrestled the puck from Ron Hainsey with a big hit into the boards, then scored on the rebound of his own first shot.
Trotz stuck with the lineup he used in Game 5 with Alex Ovechkin on the third line, Burakovsky on the first, and Karl Alzner as the seventh defenseman. Ovechkin was moved to the third line to balance out Washington’s scoring, but Burakovsky has been at his most productive since the change. He has scored a goal in each of the last two games and wound up with two Monday night.
“I think everything just comes with confidence,” Burakovsky said.
His second goal came as part of a three-goal barrage in the third period. Just 16 seconds in, Backstrom got a two-on-one rush and blasted the puck into the top of Marc-Andre Fleury’s net. John Carlson followed shortly after, then Burakovsky scored the final Washington goal. The Capitals have rattled Fleury over the last two games, and he finished with five goals allowed on 26 shots.
The Penguins, meanwhile, took only 17 shots and allowed the Capitals to control possession. During one of their three anemic power plays, the crowd at PPG Paints Arena booed the home team.
“I don’t know,” Backstrom said when asked if he felt the Penguins were beginning to crack. “We’re focusing on our game. I mean, we’re trying. We’re trying to frustrate them. That’s our goal.”
Pittsburgh added two late goals, one from Jake Guentzel and another from Evgeni Malkin, but all they did was add a slightly unsavory ending to the Capitals’ best performance of the series, when they needed it most.
“We feel pretty good about our last two games but we’re back to even now, so Game 7 at home, it’s going to be the toughest game of the series, we’re going to have to play really really well to beat them,” Niskanen said.
Game 7 is scheduled for 7:30 on Wednesday, and it’s win-or-go-home for both teams now.