1. There’s probably no more pervasive narrative in sports than “Star Player X did/didn’t get it done when it mattered most, which is why he truly is/isn’t a star.”
After Game 4 - after Barry Trotz noted, "Our top guys weren't as good as we needed to them to be ... that was unfortunate for us" - that narrative was shifting into overdrive with respect to Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom. The think pieces that were bouncing around writers’ heads in preparation for a five-game end to yet another disappointing Caps season would’ve been epic. Still might be.
Then Game 5 happened - more accurately, the third period of Game 5 - and those stories were put on hold, those sails wind-less, at least for one more day.
With the Caps down a goal and twenty hockey minutes away from elimination (more on that in a minute), the third frame opened with Holtby making a big stop on Sidney Crosby just eight seconds in. A couple of minutes later - as Doc Emrick regaled the television audience with tales of the Caps’ last comeback from a 3-1 deficit - Backstrom tied the score...
... Holtby kept it tied...
... and a few minutes later, Evgeny Kuznetsov broke the tie, and Ovechkin added an insurance marker:
Holtby was a wall thereafter (the Pens’ 15 scoring chances and six high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick were the most they’ve had in any period in the series other than a 15/7 second period in Game 3), and that was that - script flipped:
Caps' best players were just that in 4-2 win on Saturday night, staving off elimination for at least one more game https://t.co/8HLvDHhEuP— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 7, 2017
Capitals' stars step when needed to avoid elimination in Game 5 https://t.co/ywgPwCDy2e— ESPN NHL coverage (@ESPN_NHL) May 7, 2017
My column on the Capitals' top players, including Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin stepping up in Game 5: https://t.co/llvxZvEMHr— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) May 7, 2017
Trotz: "Last night, we had all of our leaders stepping up as a group, not just one or two + that brought everyone behind them with them."— Tarik El-Bashir (@TarikCSN) May 7, 2017
Now, let’s be honest - “when it mattered most” may well have been earlier in the series, when the Caps were more than a bounce or a call away from elimination (which, mind you, they very much still are). But for one game (or one period), at least, the Caps’ best players were exactly that and the results were commensurate. If that continues - particularly in net - there’s no reason the Caps can’t win another game... or two.
2. So, about that comeback. When leading after two periods this year, the Penguins had been 43-1-1 (37-1-1 during the regular season, 6-0 during the playoffs). In fact, over the last two seasons, they’d gone 94-3-1 when leading after forty minutes (76-1-1 during the regular season, 18-2 in the playoffs). A comeback seemed like a longshot...
Did you have hope after the second period? You did?— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) May 7, 2017
I don't believe you.
The #Caps scored 27 seconds apart in the third period, marking their fastest two goals in a playoff game since 4/25/92 at PIT (0:17).— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) May 7, 2017
REPORTER: What changed in the third period?— Alex Prewitt (@alex_prewitt) May 7, 2017
OVECHKIN: Uhh...we scored three goals.
For a Caps team that has, at times throughout the series, looked like it lacked confidence and patience, from the net on out, the third period of Game 5 was just what the doctor ordered. Marc-Andre Fleury finally looked human (though, even during that final stanza, he made some tremendous stops); Braden Holtby did not. The Caps’ big guns all fired successfully; the Pens’ did not. Will any of it carry over to Game 6? We’ll see... which is more than could’ve reasonably been expected with one period left in Game 5.
3. Prior to Game 5, the Caps had gotten just three goals from their bottom six forwards (all from Tom Wilson, and all in the Toronto series), so Barry Trotz switched up his lines, flipping Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky. It worked, as Burakovsky assisted on the Backstrom tally, and Ovechkin sealed the deal with a lamp-lighter as a third-liner. Burakovsky (who was terrific from start to finish) had opened the scoring, while skating on the third line, and Kuznetsov’s go-ahead goal got the second trio on the board, marking the first time the Caps have gotten a goal from each of their top three lines since late March.
As for Ovechkin, individually, he was eighth (!) in five-on-five ice time among Caps forwards, per Natural Stat Trick, but first in shot attempts (five, tied with Marcus Johansson) and first in individual scoring chances (three), his high-water mark in these playoffs, per Corsica.
Trotz on third-line Ovechkin: pic.twitter.com/3UPtvDTNEe— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 7, 2017
On the back-end, the newly created duo of Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk was also a success, clocking in at 20 shot attempts-for and just eight against (71.4%), with the duo posting game-high plus-15 and plus-12 shot differentials, respectively, at fives.
We’ll see what Mike Sullivan does to counter these combos when he’s back on home ice for Game 6, as the games within the games continue.
4. To sum it all up...