WASHINGTON — It was quiet in the Washington Capitals’ locker room during the second intermission as they stared down the prospect of the end of their season and last best chance at a Stanley Cup potentially being 20 minutes away.
A few minutes into the third period, the players made their home rink very, very loud.
Nicklas Backstrom changed the course of the game with the tying goal and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin scored 27 seconds apart as the Capitals came back to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in Game 5 Saturday night to avoid elimination. As Sidney Crosby gave the Penguins a boost with a return from his latest concussion, Braden Holtby had his strongest performance of the season, stopping 20 shots to help force a Game 6 back in Pittsburgh on Monday night.
“After second: “No panic, nobody talk a lot because everybody concentrate and that’s what we need,” Ovechkin said. “You see how we respond.”
On the brink of elimination and trailing a Pittsburgh team that went 37-1-1 in the regular season and 6-0 in the playoffs when up after two periods, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals finally responded like the Cup contenders everyone thought they should be. With the slogan “Own the big moments” a reminder of how they didn’t do so a year ago in their second-round loss to the Penguins, Washington’s best players came to play when the moment was its biggest.
“That’s just what we need in these tight games,” said Andre Burakovsky, who scored the tying goal in the first period and had another good game after replacing Ovechkin as the top-line left winger. “We need our best players to step up and do the hard work and be the difference makers. I think that’s what they were tonight.”
In the process, the Capitals finally solved Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed four goals on 32 shots after putting up a .937 save percentage in the first four games of the series. The three third-period goals came on five shots over a span of 5:02, including Kuznetsov’s goal from a super-sharp angle.
“They finish first in the league, there’s a reason for it,” Fleury said. “The last (win is) always the hardest to get. Disappointing but move on.”
Capitals players said there was no shortage of belief despite being down 2-1 after two on Penguins goals by Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, and Game 5 following a similar script of more shots but fewer goals. Now there’s no shortage of belief about getting the series back to Washington for a potential Game 7 on Wednesday.
“We came back and hopefully we build off this now,” said Backstrom, who executed a perfect give-and-go with Burakovsky on his goal . “You’ve just got to win on Monday. Same scenario as today. We’ve just got to take one game at a time and you have to reset here and, hopefully, we can get some confidence off this win.”
The Penguins’ confidence stems from still having a 3-2 series lead, home ice in Game 6 and getting Crosby back five days after he was concussed.
“He’s a competitor,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “He wants to be out there. It’s good that he was cleared and able to play. We wanted a win and to get this win but it’s definitely good to have him back.”
Crosby had an assist in his first game back and felt good, but the Penguins couldn’t handle the Capitals’ quick-strike offense in the third period that has made this series between the NHL’s top two teams even more interesting.
“We’re playing one of the best teams in the league,” Holtby said. “We’re going to have to be the best team in the league if we’re going to win this series. And we’re up to the challenge.”
NOTES: In addition to Crosby, Penguins RW Conor Sheary returned after being concussed Monday in a collision with teammate Patric Hornqvist. … Capitals D Brooks Orpik appeared to shake his left hand after being slashed by Evgeni Malkin in the first period. … The Capitals again dressed seven defensemen. … Super Bowl winning Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien received a nice ovation from the sellout crowd when he was shown on the video boards.