WASHINGTON (AP) — Jakub Vrana came to the rink expecting to play on the Capitals’ third line again. He left as a top-liner on top of the world.
Vrana made the most of his promotion to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, setting up the tying goal and scoring the Game 5 winner as Washington beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 Saturday night to take a 3-2 lead in the second-round series and put the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions on the brink of elimination.
After replacing an ineffective Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line, the 22-year-old rookie sprung Kuznetsov on the breakaway that tied the score early in the third period and took a pass from Ovechkin and scored the go-ahead goal with 4:38 left to send a fired-up crowd into a frenzy. Vrana made Barry Trotz look like a genius for bumping him up the lineup but wasn’t expecting to be his coach’s plan B.
“That’s just how the game rolls,” said Vrana, who also assisted on Brett Connolly’s first-period goal to give him three points. “Sometimes you’re gonna make changes. Today we did. We were all ready. I felt comfortable out there. Ready for next game.”
That next game, Monday night in Pittsburgh, is the Capitals’ chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era and for the first time overall since 1998 when they lost in the Cup Final. They may have to do it without star center Nicklas Backstrom, who left in the third period with an upper-body injury that Trotz said the team will have more information on Sunday.
With Backstrom unable to play the final 13 minutes, Lars Eller double-shifted and Vrana looked like a perfect fit with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. The Capitals are on the verge of beating Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins for the first time in four playoff series dating to 2009 on the strength of top-end scoring and goaltending from Braden Holtby, who stopped 36 of the 39 shots he faced.
“Obviously Holts right now playing unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a big wall over there. When he play like that, it give us confidence.”
Confidence isn’t lacking on either side. The Capitals hope they can build off an emotional victory, and the Penguins will try to win their fourth consecutive Game 6 after falling behind 3-2 in a series.
“Your desperation level is a little higher,” said Crosby, who scored his ninth goal of the playoffs. “You’re aware of the situation, and that brings out the best in everybody. We knew it was going to be a tight series. We need to make sure we leave it all out there, give ourselves a chance to get back here.”
The Capitals ensured at least one more home game this postseason with goals by John Carlson and Connolly 33 seconds apart in the first period and a rebound effort in the third after being outshot 18-5 in the second. Pittsburgh got goals from Jamie Oleksiak at even strength and Crosby and Patric Hornqvist on the power play, often hanging goalie Matt Murray out to dry as he allowed four on 30 shots.
Kuznetsov’s goal brought out his bird-flapping celebration and awakened a crowd that booed the Capitals at the end of the second period. Vrana’s goal was followed by deafening chants of “Lets’ Go Caps!” at the next timeout, among the loudest in the building over Washington’s decade-long run of contention.
“Tonight was one of those games where we needed to earn it from our fans,” Holtby said. “They probably think ‘Here we go again’ and we’re not thinking that. We’re thinking we’re pushing forward, we’re focusing on the moment and hopefully we gave them belief with that third period because this group in here believes in ourselves.”
NOTES: T.J. Oshie and Eller each scored an empty-netter in the final minutes to ice it. … Trotz said Carlson was being evaluated after taking a high hit from Jake Guentzel late in the third period. … The goals 33 seconds apart by Carlson and Connolly were the second-fastest in Capitals playoff history behind Craig Laughlin and Dave Christian (32 seconds) in 1984. … Crosby took sole possession of second place on the Penguins’ all-time playoff goals list with his 66th, breaking a tie with Jaromir Jagr. Crosby is 10 shy of Mario Lemieux for the most in franchise history. … Carlson is 36th defenseman in history and third active with 10-plus power-play points in the playoffs. No defenseman has reached 11 power-play points in the postseason since Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Gonchar in 2009.