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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: For Penguins, it's finish or be finished

| Sunday, May 6, 2018, 9:30 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby can't get the a rebound off Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in the first period during game 4 of round 2 Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday, May 3, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby can't get the a rebound off Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in the first period during game 4 of round 2 Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday, May 3, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

If the Penguins lose this Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Capitals and ultimately end their quest for a Stanley Cup three-peat, a lot of Pittsburgh hockey fans will point to that atrocious third period of Game 5 in Washington, D.C.

The Penguins started the period up 3-2. They ended up losing 6-3.

• Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin had a communication breakdown which led to botched coverage on the tying goal. Letang then lost Jakub Vrana on the go-ahead goal.

• Dumoulin couldn't finish a glorious scoring chance when the game was tied. Olli Maatta failed to score on a golden opportunity when the Pens trailed by one.

• Phil Kessel messed up at the blue line with the goalie pulled, which allowed T.J. Oshie to score an empty-net goal.

• Matt Murray couldn't come up with a game-saving stop. Yet Braden Holtby did so on numerous occasions.

Yup. A lot went wrong in that third period.

A lot.

In my opinion though, the third period was more a symptom of a game-long problem. Not the true issue.

If you didn't have that “other skate about to drop” sensation when the third period was about to begin, you've got a more steely stomach than I do.

Or maybe you are just counting too much on the “Caps turning into the Caps eventually.”

Because to me, that game felt doomed before the Zambonis hit the ice for the second intermission.

After 40 minutes, Game 5 should've been 7-2 or 7-3 Penguins. Seriously. There were THAT many high-quality scoring chances. The Penguins outplayed the Capitals THAT badly.

By the time the second period had ended, the shots on goal total read: Penguins 31, Capitals 18. Mike Sullivan said the Penguins only allowed one scoring chance in the second frame.

For the game, the “high-danger” scoring chances alone for the Penguins registered 14.

A team with as much scoring depth as the Penguins shouldn't leave that many chances on the table.

Even if Holtby is outplaying Murray in the other net.

Which — by the way — so far in this series, he is.

Regardless of Holtby's fine performance since Game 1 of this series, that game Saturday should've looked like Game 1 or Game 6 of the Flyers series. A game where the goalie in the other net really didn't have much of a choice but to get sunburn on his neck from the goal lamp. When this Penguins team gets that many opportunities and that much zone time in the first two periods, the third should be academic.

“It might have been our best game of the series. And we didn't come out with the result we were looking for,” Sullivan said. “But I know our group is capable.”

The fact Sullivan's team went into the first intermission down one goal, in and of itself, was stunning given the way they owned the first 18 minutes.

“It's tough. We did a lot of good things,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “I felt like we could've won. But that's playoff hockey.”

It won't be for much longer unless the Penguins can take advantage of more opportunities when they put themselves in position to score. All the zone time and creativity in the world won't matter if people beyond Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist don't cash in more often.

With Holtby playing as well as he is, a certain percentage of Penguin scoring chances still won't go in. But the Caps are starting to do to the Penguins what the Penguins have done to so many teams in recent years: They can be even, or behind, in the shots and scoring chance column, but they will wind up ahead on the scoreboard.

“It's not like there were momentum swings in the game where Washington got a handful of scoring chances,” Sullivan reiterated during a Sunday conference call. “You have to give them credit. They are a good team with good players. They have difference makers as well.”

Now that difference is one game with two to go. And if you are counting on the Capitals to throw up all over themselves and blow this series again, don't. If Washington was prone to do that, they would have caved under that Penguin pressure while down 3-2 in the second.

Instead, they grabbed momentum and threw it right back in the face of the two-time defending champions.

If the Penguins are going to win this series, it's going to be because they get back to being the Penguins. It won't be because the Capitals shrink back to being the Capitals.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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