- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2018

Previous Capitals teams probably would have found a way to blow it.

For every sliver of hope — like when the team climbed out of a 3-1 series hole against the Pittsburgh Penguins to force a Game 7 last season — there’s the inevitable letdown. Last postseason, the Capitals tightened up and failed to score in Game 7 before being eliminated, again, in the second round.

So, factoring in the Capitals’ history, it would have been natural for Washington to pull the chair out from under its fans after forward Jakub Vrana scored the go-ahead goal Saturday with less than five minutes remaining in Game 5.

This Capitals team, though, didn’t fold — taking a 3-2 series lead with 6-3 win over the Penguins.

Following Vrana’s goal, the Penguins registered just one shot on net. The Capitals didn’t let the pressure of having a lead get to them. They didn’t collapse.

“That’s part of our growth,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Our bench was calm, we knew we had to get it done and we executed it pretty well. In the past, we may not have been as calm and that sort of goes to, you keep having the same experiences it becomes just routine. We’ve learned to be more comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”

The win gives the Capitals two chances to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, with the first coming in Monday’s Game 6 in Pittsburgh.

In 2017, the Capitals were able to win three games against the Penguins with an entirely different formula. They had to make up ground after losing the first two games. Washington constantly threw pucks at the net, to mixed success.

Pittsburgh, counterpunching with perfect combinations, never seemed to lose control last season.

This season, it’s the Capitals dictating tempo.

To beat the Penguins, the Capitals have had to play like them.

After last year’s playoff exit, the Capitals came into 2017-18 with a new style that stressed shot quality over quantity. They put an emphasis on generating high-danger chances, or shots that are more likely to go in. Washington, after all, didn’t have the same firepower after losing two top six forwards in the offseason.

It’s a style that looks a lot like the one the Penguins deployed against the Capitals last season.

“They … wait for you to kind of make a mistake,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Wait for the grade-A chances instead of just hope chances and I think we’ve learned a lot from that.”

This season, it’s the Capitals leading breakaways and taking advantages of 2-on-1s. On Saturday, the Capitals tied the game 52 seconds into the third when Vrana found an opening and delivered a pass to center Evgeny Kuznetsov for a breakaway goal. Star Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, has scored three goals in the second round — all coming on an odd-man rush.

By comparison to last season’s series, shot attempts are virtually even through five games. Pittsburgh has recorded four more attempts (300-296) and two more shots on goal (143-141).

In 2017, the Capitals had 60 percent of the shot attempts against Pittsburgh.

Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said the Penguins are good at taking away “time-and-space,” so they have to break through Pittsburgh’s layers of defense to generate odd-man rushes.

“These teams, we’re so tight right now that any time you can get an advantage on an odd-man rush, it really feels like the highlight of the game,” Oshie said. “Or the easiest part of the game because we’re both clogging it up so much.”

But to beat the Penguins, the Capitals have also had to match the resiliency of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Holtby, in particular, has been a stonewall — like then-goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was for the Penguins last season.

The Capitals were measured after Saturday’s win, knowing the Penguins have faced a 3-2 deficit before.

Still, Trotz said the Capitals have had a “belief’ for most of the season. Already in the playoffs, Washington shook off an 0-2 start in the first round and a Game 1 collapse against the Penguins.

And a 3-2 lead is no assurance the Capitals will advance. They blew a 3-1 lead against the New York Rangers in 2015 for a chance to get to the conference finals.

Washington will have to prove it can get over the hump.

“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” Oshie said. “We know the history. We know what’s happened to us in the past. But right now, we have a lot of belief and trust in each other.”


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