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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The stick bags and trunks sat inside the crowded hallway, symbols of the Washington Capitals’ survival, packed and ready for the road. Had Saturday night unfolded differently, had the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Verizon Center and eliminated their hosts in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the home locker room would’ve opened to a somber scene, a postmortem on the end of the season. Instead, after a 3-1 win powered by stars, behind those doors celebrated a group with renewed hope. “We still [have] life,” forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “Even when you have last life, you have to battle for that.”
The Capitals remain teetering on the brink, still trailing 3-2 with Game 6 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, and NHL teams facing that deficit have historically advanced just 22 percent of the time. But their power play broke through with a first-period missile from Alex Ovechkin and a second-period rebound conversion from T.J. Oshie, twice as many man-advantage goals as they tallied across Games 1-4. Goaltender Braden Holtby was stingy while facing 31 shots, none better than a lunging pad save on Patric Hornqvist and a gloved robbery of Justin Schultz, 16 seconds apart in the middle frame. And when Holtby’s counterpart, Pittsburgh rookie Matt Murray, fled the ice with 3:15 left, Washington buckled down to earn the only multi-goal win of the series.
All that talk about history, about legacies and demons, will have to wait.
“It’s a process to change some of the mindsets for your team or your past,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Whatever happened today doesn’t matter. It’s done. We’re moving forward and will see what the next game brings. And if we can bring our best game, it’ll give us a chance to have success. I think that’s sort of the biggest mindset that we’re getting through, is you’re going to have some learning curve in anything you do in life, and anything that’s been successful ever, it’s probably failed 100 of times before it had some success. But you just keep learning from that.”
Hours later, as he stood at the dais on the practice court of the NBA’s Wizards, Trotz recalled issuing a firm prediction earlier that day. “Coming to the rink I said to our coaches, ‘We’re winning tonight, there’s no question,’” he said. “You can tell with our team. We get a sense of that. I knew this morning. They responded. I never had any doubt that they weren’t going to respond.”
This spoke to a larger confidence among his charges, even as they faced an early summer. According to Oshie, who recorded his third multi-point game of the playoffs, the lead-up to Game 5 contained, at most, “maybe one, two teaching clips.” In other words, the Capitals’ coaches avoided nitpicking mistakes in video sessions, instead focusing on “a lot of positive talk.”
When asked what stood out to Oshie during his first time facing elimination with the Capitals, the veteran winger replied, “How calm we were. How positive we were. How positive the coaching was. There was no panic and that’s really important for guys that are facing elimination. We need a little bit of foundation to give us a little confidence and I’ve said it all year, this team’s got a certain kind of swagger to it and we don’t want to go away from that. With the no panic, we can keep that swagger and we can move on and keep improving.”
Of course, the Penguins have plenty cause for optimism too. They are headed back to Consol Energy Center, where they have lost one time since March 24. They responded well to Washington’s fast start, notching their first power play goal of the series and equalizing Game 5 at 1-1 when Chris Kunitz slapped a rebound past Holtby. Handing Washington five man advantages wasn’t an ideal recipe for success, but the Eastern Conference’s second best team still has two more chances at closing out the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
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“We’ll put the game behind us, but nothing’s easy,” coach Mike 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’s concerned, for us we have to have a short memory. We have to take the good things we did tonight and we’ve got to build on them. We’ve got an opportunity. We’ve just got to win a game, and 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.”
Backed into a corner, the Capitals could say the same thing about themselves. Ovechkin kicked off the scoring with a blistering one-timer, fired while dropping to one knee. Justin Williams added an unassisted tally midway through the second period, capitalizing off Brian Dumoulin’s errant defensive-zone pass and beating Murray between the goaltender’s legs. “My mindset is, I don’t want to go home. I don’t want our season to end. We’ve stopped it once and we need to do it twice more,” Williams said, not far from the bags that had been loaded up and earmarked for Pittsburgh.